The Definitive Guide to Houston

Burning Down The House

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On May 27, the Houston Astros removed a struggling Mike Fiers from their starting rotation and deposited the 32-year-old veteran into the bullpen. It was, without doubt, a demoralizing blow for the right-handed hurler. Fiers has been a serviceable major league starter for the Astros in the past, and has even flirted with stretches of dominance. But after he limped to a 5.21 ERA and a major league-leading 18 home runs allowed to start 2017, AJ Hinch and the Astros had seen enough.

Or so they thought. An ill-timed injury to Charlie Morton created an unexpected rotation vacancy the very day after Fiers’ demotion. Chalk it up to opportunity giving the pitcher’s door an idiomatic knock.

To his credit, Fiers threw that door wide open and embraced the possibilities on the other side. He’s gone 4-0 in his five starts since, and his solid performance Wednesday night helped send the traveling Astros on their way to a four-game sweep of the Oakland Athletics. He’s wrestled his season from the jaws of mediocrity, lowered his ERA to 3.81, and in so doing may have cemented his place in the ‘Stros’ future plans.

So what keyed the striking turnaround? Put simply, Fiers is willing to tinker.

This should come as no surprise to Astros fans. Fiers has never possessed the elite velocity coveted by major league teams, so he’s always relied on deception and intelligent pitch sequencing to retire opposing hitters. As those hitters adapt and learn, Fiers needs to stay one step ahead. Earlier this year, he appeared to have lost that step. But he was working on getting it back even before his one-day banishment to the ‘pen.

Consider his pitch usage data, courtesy of Brooks Baseball. In the early part of the season, Fiers leaned heavily on his four-seam fastball. But opposing batters feasted on that pitch, slugging it out of the park at a record rate. So Fiers adjusted.

See that big spike in the lighter grey line? That’s when Fiers started mixing in his sinker – a pitch with similar velocity, but different movement – to keep hitters off balance. By adding one more pitch for batters to worry about, Fiers has produced dramatically better results.

Around the same time, he set to work retooling his slow, hammer curveball. He dropped his arm slot a few inches, and added a bit more zip to the pitch – its average velocity has spiked almost two miles per hour since mid-May. Fiers must like the new approach – he’s used the curve for 24% of his total pitch mix in June, up from just 16% in May.

Slice Fiers’ season up into pieces, and the results of these changes shine through.

Dates Games Started W-L ERA HR Allowed
April 7 – May 13 6 1-1 5.64 14
May 14 – May 26 3 0-1 4.41 4
May 27 – June 23 5 4-0 1.72 0
2017 Total 14 5-2 3.81 18

Through his first six starts, Mike Fiers basically stunk. After that, he began experimenting, starting with adding that sinker to his May 14th start against the Yankees. He carried on tinkering for three more starts, adjusting the speed and delivery of his curveball along the way. By the time he was demoted to the bullpen on May 27th, Fiers had already made the changes that have subsequently keyed his dramatic turnaround. All he needed to do was go out and pitch.

It’s a good thing he got the chance – with Lance McCullers and Dallas Keuchel joining Morton on the disabled list, Fiers has emerged as the de facto ace of the Astros’ pitching staff. He won’t be able to keep us his blistering pace forever – hitters will soon adjust, and it will once again be Fiers’ turn to adjust back. But he’s carried the team when they’ve needed him most. And you can bet that the Astros’ front office won’t forget that the next time the veteran scuffles.

‘Stros Look To Chase The Ace
The Astros open a three-game series in Seattle against the Mariners tonight. They face a tough draw – long-time ace Felix Hernandez takes the hill for the M’s, returning from a stint on the disabled list. But don’t expect that to faze Carlos Correa and Jose Altuve. The dynamic up-the-middle tandem each carry a .500 lifetime batting average against Hernandez into tonight’s contest.

Springer Escapes Injury
Houston fans held their breath after leadoff man George Springer took a fastball to the hand in the first inning of Thursday’s game. Fortunately for the ‘Stros, Springer’s X-Rays came back negative – he’ll return to the top of the lineup in the next few days.

Fastest To Fifty
With their win on Thursday, the Astros became the first major league team to reach 50 victories in 2017. It took Houston just 74 games to hit that mark – their quickest pace in franchise history.

Noah is a Houston-based writer and photographer. You can find him exploring Houston's restaurant and museum scenes with his wife or catching a game at Minute Maid Park. He and his wife serve local businesses through their digital content company, Two Cats Communications.

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