Oakland Athletics: Mike Fiers has become the team’s undisputed ace

OAKLAND, CA - AUGUST 03: Mike Fiers #50 of the Oakland Athletics pitches against the St. Louis Cardinals in the top of the first inning at Ring Central Coliseum on August 3, 2019 in Oakland, California. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
OAKLAND, CA - AUGUST 03: Mike Fiers #50 of the Oakland Athletics pitches against the St. Louis Cardinals in the top of the first inning at Ring Central Coliseum on August 3, 2019 in Oakland, California. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images) /

In a season marred by questions revolving around the Oakland Athletics’ starting rotation, Mike Fiers has become the unassuming ace that can solidify their Wild Card aspirations.

Entering the season, the Oakland Athletics sought to continue their trajectory as a playoff-contending team that boasted a young core and an excess of power hitters.

Despite the potent offense, however, one question remained extremely apparent: which five pitchers were going to get the A’s to that promised land?

The year before, Oakland had unsuspecting but brilliant performances from a rejuvenated Trevor Cahill (3.45 FIP), a wily and well-traveled Edwin Jackson (3.33 ERA), and a budding front-end starter, Sean Manaea — who threw a no-hitter against the eventual World Champion Boston Red Sox.

None of the three have made a start for the green and gold this season.

A’s fans remained optimistic. Top left-handed pitching prospects A.J. Puk and Jesus Luzardo would be making their returns from Tommy John Surgery and a shoulder injury, respectively, and gun for late-season callups. Sean Manaea could be back by late summer to bolster the staff.

But patience would be a tough task for an Oakland Athletics fanbase that was getting a premature taste of playoff-level excellence from the season prior. Oakland desperately needed someone to fill the role of ace.

Enter Mike Fiers — the one hold-over from the season before that seemed to slot in as the A’s makeshift ace.

More from Oakland Athletics

Fiers would be tasked with the very first start of the season — a game against the rebuilding Seattle Mariners amidst an Ichiro Suzuki farewell tour at the Tokyo Dome. Fiers would last just three innings, giving up five earned runs in a less than impressive outing.

The first month of the season would not be kind at all to Mike Fiers. He put together an 8.28 ERA, 1.72 WHIP, and batters were mashing .314 against him.

But miraculously — and in the same unsuspecting way that the A’s pitching staff evolved last season — Fiers began to find his groove. It hasn’t been until recently that we’ve taken the time to truly notice the turnaround, but now it’s demanding our attention:

Mike Fiers has the lowest ERA in the American League since April 26.

Lower than defending Cy Young winner Blake Snell. Lower than the plethora of Cy Young candidates pitching for the Houston Astros. Not top ten lowest. Not top five. The lowest ERA.

Completely contrasting that first month of the season, Fiers is boasting a 2.28 ERA, 0.98 WHIP, and a .205 opponent average. In 19 games started, he’s accumulated sixteen quality starts with nine of those starts allowing one earned run or less.

He has not allowed more than three earned runs in any one of his starts since the end of April.

He even threw his second career no-hitter almost a year to the day of Manaea’s.

Without anyone even realizing it, Mike Fiers has quietly become the ace that the A’s have desperately been searching for; he has become the clear choice to start the eventual Wild Card game that the Oakland Athletics have been striving toward.

The question shifts from asking who would lead the Oakland pitching staff to how Fiers has been able to turn his season around.

Much of his success this season can be attributed to his ability to lean on a repertoire of five above-average pitches—sequencing between a low-90’s fastball, an accompanying sinker, and three rebranded off-speed pitches.

For the first time since 2014, which was arguably his best season, Fiers has successfully utilized each of his pitches in put-away situations at above an 11% clip. In other words, he’s got each pitch working for him.

Oakland Athletics sign viral video sensation Nathan Patterson. light. Hot

Though he hasn’t been missing more bats compared to previous seasons, he is creating weaker contact out of the zone, which has solidified him as a pitch-to-contact specialist. Batters have only been able to barrel up on his pitches 6.5% of the time compared to last season’s 10.4% clip.

Hitters continue chasing pitches out of the zone, as well.

With it, they’ve been making contact with those pitches at an increasing rate — 72.3% of the time this season compared to 67.6% last season — meaning his pitches are more tempting but have been producing weaker contact for easier outs.

It all begins with Fiers’ reimagining of when and how to utilize his changeup.

Last season, Fiers’ changeup served as the second most-used pitch in his arsenal. This season, the changeup has become his least used pitch but is being thrown in the zone almost twice as often as it ever has been.

One of the most fundamental changes that Fiers has made to become more effective since his abysmal start to the season has been throwing the changeup over the zone for strikes—upping his rate from 39.8% in April all the way up to around 60% in the months following.

While he’s throwing it less, it’s setting up his devastating breaking balls.

More. Oakland Athletics: Breaking down the trade for starting pitcher Tanner Roark. light

The first of these two breaking pitches is his well-established curveball which has become even more effective as the season has gone on. Fiers’ curveball has long been one of the best in the league, and this season is no different; he sits within the 84th percentile for overall spin rate.

The difference, however, is that his curveball can be thrown out of the strike zone to tempt batters more now that he’s getting his changeup over for strikes. Alleviating the pressure of throwing curveballs in the zone reduces the number of hangers that batters salivate at.

Unsurprisingly, the numbers reflect that batters just can’t lay off the nasty curveball that dives down out of the zone — batters have chased the pitch over twice as often as they did back in April when Fiers was getting belted. The changeup transforms that curveball into a wipeout pitch.

And to keep batters just a little more off-balance, Fiers has recreated his slider, a pitch that had previously been mostly ineffective. He’s bumped the spin rate of that pitch up dramatically, which has, in turn, increased swing-and-misses from 13.5% last season to 21.4% this season.

In layman’s terms, Fiers has opted to trade in a reliance on putting batters away with a fastball-changeup combination that wasn’t tempting batters in favor of two breaking balls that are performing at career-best marks.

More from Golden Gate Sports

As the season rolls on, Mike Fiers has slowly trended toward using his pitches at more and more equal rates, which has left batters frustrated at the plate with no idea what to sit on.

He’s mitigated the situations where he would have to throw breaking balls for strikes by, instead, pounding the zone when he has to and pitching close enough just outside the zone to create weak contact.

His issues in March and April were largely a result of his inability to throw his changeup over for strikes. He was getting mashed when he had to throw his slider in the zone over and over again and he couldn’t risk hanging a curveball to opponents who are seeing skyrocketing home run numbers this season.

We are nearly half a year removed from the Mike Fiers who took the mound at the Tokyo Dome and was lit up for nearly half a dozen runs. Now, Fiers enters his next start with the chance to tie his career-high in wins for a season.

In spite of setbacks from the young core of pitchers that have been developing in the minor leagues, the 80-game PED suspension of an untouchable Frankie Montas, and a recasting of their starting rotation from last season, the Oakland Athletics have found their ace headed into a potential win-or-go-home playoff encore.

Next. Oakland Athletics: Which players have the best 2019 Players’ Weekend jerseys?. dark

It remains to be seen just how sustainable this version of Mike Fiers is for the entirety of a season. But as Oakland heads into the final stretch of a race for the Wild Card, Fiers has become the emerging ace that no one really believed was coming this season.