2/23/2013 6:56 P.M. ET
Funky Fiers out to start, finish season strong
By Adam McCalvy / MLB.com
PHOENIX -- Mike Fiers' fastball averaged 88.1 mph last season, 18th slowest among the Major Leaguers who threw at least 100 innings, and eighth-slowest among non-knuckleballing right-handers.
And yet through June and July and part of August, before Fiers faded at the end of the longest year of his baseball life, the slim Brewers right-hander proved you don't necessarily need velocity to find Major League success.
"I remember his first game," said Martin Maldonado, who was behind the plate at Dodger Stadium last May 29 for Fiers' first big league start. "Jerry Hairston [Jr.] was in there and he looked at me and said, 'Where did that guy come from?'"
Fiers came from Nova Southeastern University, where he led the nation with 145 strikeouts in 2009, but lasted until the 22nd round of the First-Year Player Draft. He was in the Majors by 2011 for a September stint, was elevated again last May and is back in big league camp this spring fighting for a spot in the starting rotation.
Fiers was first out of the gate on Saturday, when he started and pitched two scoreless innings of the Brewers' Cactus League-opening, 2-1 win against the A's. He labored through a 26-pitch first inning, striking out Chris Young with the bases loaded, then breezed through a 1-2-3 second before calling it a day.
"That's not how we planned it," Fiers said.
The 27-year-old said he was too amped up to pitch after a winter spent adding bulk and running sprints on the beaches north of Miami. Rickie Weeks' younger brother, Jemile, led off the game with a double to the right-center field gap and Japanese newcomer Hiroyuki Nakajima followed with a walk before Fiers began to settle in. He did walk Seth Smith with two outs to load the bases, but whiffed Young on three pitches to escape.
The other day at Maryvale Baseball Park, it was Maldonado in the batter's box. He faced Fiers in live batting practice.
"He threw me two fastballs that looked like 99 mph," Maldonado said.
It is Fiers' unique delivery that creates the effect. He raises his glove hand up high, then lowers it at the same time his throwing hand is coming up to deliver the baseball. Hitters -- and the catcher, Maldonado said -- either have a difficult time picking up the baseball out of Fiers' hand, or they see it but are surprised at how quickly it's in the hitting zone.
"You've got late life," Maldonado said. "That's the thing that makes him so good. He's got that slow move, but then he delivers that ball and it's right on top of you."
Maldonado emphasized his point by leaning back, his eyes wide with surprise.
Fiers surprised a lot of observers in 2012, going 9-10 with a 3.74 ERA in 23 appearances, 22 of which were starts. He beat Hairston and the Dodgers with seven innings of five-hit, one-run ball in his season debut, and then followed with two subpar starts. He would rebound quickly and emphatically however, as from June 16-Aug. 7 he went 5-2 with a 1.02 ERA in 10 appearances, including nine consecutive quality starts. Brewers officials began promoting him as a National League Rookie of the Year candidate.
A late-season slide was to come, but Fiers had done enough to prove he could sustain success in the Majors.
"What he did surprised a lot of people," said Brewers ace Yovani Gallardo. "For anyone to come up and put up those numbers, it was impressive."
Gallardo heard from hitters about Fiers' deception, but Brewers manager Ron Roenicke was quick to point out that the reasons for Fiers' success goes deeper than that.
"He's got good stuff," Roenicke said. "Really good curveball, really good changeup, nice little cutter, and his fastball jumps on you. Deception, whatever you want to say, it jumps on you. We hope he gets this confidence he had last year, so at the end of the Spring when we're trying to make decisions about who's going to be our starters, he's throwing the way we saw him last year."
Fiers is one of five leading candidates for four starting rotation slots behind Gallardo. Since Marco Estrada is expected to be the No. 2 starter, it leaves four pitchers for three slots: Left-hander Chris Narveson and right-handers Fiers, Wily Peralta and Mark Rogers.
The three righties all have factors working in their favor: Fiers has the longest track record, Peralta is the No. 1 prospect and Rogers is out of options.
For Fiers, the trick will be sustaining his success over a full season. He faded as his innings climbed into new territory, going 1-4 with a 7.09 ERA in his final six starts. The Brewers considered shutting Fiers down, but found themselves a surprise Wild Card contender and felt Fiers was their best bet. He finished with 182 2/3 innings between Nashville and Milwaukee after throwing 128 innings the year before.
"He might have been a little fatigued. I talked to him there at the end," Gallardo said. "He had a little bump. I tried to let him know that's going to happen, so forget about it. It was tough on him. Nobody wants to say, 'I'm fatigued, I'm done.' If you get a chance to pitch every five days, you're going to do it."
Fiers cut back on distance runs this winter and focused instead on strength. He hopes it pays off when August and September roll around this time.
"Maybe that was what happened at the end of the year, my body was just more tired and I didn't have that mass," Fiers said. "I didn't go overboard, just a little extra weight to have. Maybe [it will add] a little durability. This is my second year and I'm still trying to figure out things, trying to learn from every year."