BOSTON — When Rick Porcello was in Detroit, Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander were not the pitchers he modeled himself after. They throw too hard to mimic.
Doug Fister, the veteran righty whose career is on a path to revival with the Red Sox, was easy to bounce ideas off.
“We’re both sinker ballers,” Porcello said. “I felt like at that time, I was kind of plateauing as far as what I was able to do on the mound. I could get a ground ball. There were other parts of my game that were missing. I was having a lot of trouble generating strikeouts. We all know how important that is, especially with runners on base. Just overall kind of identity on how I was going to form a game plan and attack hitters.
“It wasn’t necessarily a lack of weapons, it was just, it wasn’t really setting things up properly, and all that sort of stuff. And he came over [to Detroit], and just watching him for the couple of years that he was there, and the amount of success that he had — not to mention that he’s a great dude and works hard and he’s an easy guy to like and admire in that regard. … He seemed to always have a good feel for pitching to contact at the right times, and then trying to generate the swing and miss at the right time.”
The pupil's grown up. Fister speaks fondly of what Porcello’s been able to accomplish since they were last teammates.
“He’s really come into himself, and obviously that showed last year,” Fister said. “I’m proud of him for doing what he did. He’s continually battling this year, and making the adjustments that need to be made. And he’s definitely progressed in knowing what he does, and doing it well.”
To begin this year, their positions in the game were almost reversed. Porcello had great success and was the reigning American League Cy Young winner. Fister, meanwhile, was trying to find his way. Porcello then struggled early on. But, up until his last start — which was so bad, he joked that Mitch Moreland should have been the starting pitcher — Porcello had a 3.47 ERA in a nine-start span dating to the start of July.
Porcello said when the Sox signed Fister, there was no doubt in his mind Fister still had the ability to throw a one-hitter, as he did in Cleveland last week.
But there was reason to be skeptical. Fister, now 34, had a 4.48 ERA from 2015-16. He had a 3.11 ERA from 2011-14, all but the last of those years in Detroit.
“Watching his bullpens and even the games that he’s pitched earlier this year, his stuff is there, everything’s there,” Porcello said.
Fister has been gaining strength as the year goes. He has a 3.41 ERA in his last five starts with 30 strikeouts and 10 walks in 34 1/3 innings. He’s been more reliable of late than Eduardo Rodriguez.
Even though Fister wasn’t good enough for the Angels earlier this year, he said he did not worry his career could be over.
“It’s not a worry,” Fister said in between his most recent starts. “I’m very — I don’t want to say content, but if my career stopped right now at this point, today, you know I can hang my hat on knowing I've done everything I could to have a successful career.
“Maybe there’s some people out there that wanted to, needed to see it or I needed to prove it to somebody. But, I have always felt that I still had what it takes to be a starter and I still feel that. You know, I’ll feel that ’til the day I hang up my cleats. Even if I’m in the bullpen. Either way, it’s fine. I’ve got have it in my heart that I know I can go out and get a big league hitter out at any point.”
He’s also got to have the ability on the mound, too. And to that end, Red Sox assistant pitching coach Brian Bannister has seen defined change.
“It’s been amazing how much he’s accomplished since he got here,” Bannister said. “He got off to a late start with the Angels, didn’t get a full spring training like everybody else. So he was already kind of behind the 8-ball, and then when we acquired him, his sinker wasn’t — the depth on it wasn’t at the point it was in years past. The curveball wasn’t up to par for him. And so, he was trying to pitch a little more straight on, a little less like a traditional sinker baller like a Mike Leake or a Trevor Cahill.
“He likes to step across his body. He was always known for getting really big extension, but he’s also dealt with some physical issues in past years. So I think the strategy was to shift him over on the rubber. He’s now pitching from the first base side to alleviate some of that torque and angle [which] can affect him physically, but then, also get the sinker back.”
The idea to move on the rubber came from bullpen coach Dana LeVangie. As Bannister put it, sinker ballers can be “cross-striders.” And they risk lower back and hip problems because it’s not as natural to throw across one’s body.
LeVangie wasn’t focusing on health as much as he was thinking, from a catcher’s perspective, how Fister could regain movement. The benefits happened to go hand in hand.
“He was having trouble trying to get the ball down,” LeVangie said. “So I said I thought about moving over, and guys typically who throw sinkers at some point make an adjustment to move over on the rubber. Making it easier to command the ball glove side of their body, and throw the ball down hill.”
The Red Sox were in Tampa Bay when LeVangie made the suggestion.
“I started thinking about Derek Lowe, adjustments he made, and I just felt like maybe the time was right,” LeVangie said. “He went out threw a bullpen that day. He was really happy.”
Bannister noted that the fielding independent pitching statistics show that Fister’s low ERA wasn’t a fluke. He also noted that he’s knocked two inches off the rise on his sinker — movement that looks like the 2011 version.
Whether it keeps up is to be seen, but there's reason to think Doug Fister could look a little more like the Doug Fister who taught Rick Porcello so much in Detroit.
“Working on the sinker depth, working on getting the curve ball spin right and then you know kind of just reacting to how the league is this year,” Bannister said. “It’s been harder on sinker ballers in general, just because guys are going all or nothing with their approach. So he has been working on different strategies to kind of evolve himself in how he mixes and how he attacks the zone, and now kind of the final thing is working on getting some depth on the changeup like he had in years past.
“It’s been impressive to watch him work, to watch him try and pitch competitively while also making all these adjustments, because he went in a very different direction last year in Houston. And unwinding that, while also trying to get back to some of his strengths — while also trying to add something new — it’s been fun to watch him, and it’s really good to see him have success. Because he’s a pitcher who was extremely successful at one point, who is still very talented, has an athleticism and a range of motion you don’t usually see in a 6-foot-8 guy. And so there’s a lot of talent there, a lot of things to work with, and he’s put in the time.”