January 25, 2022

Nats making tough — but correct — call on Ross over Fister

It’s about time.

All season long, the Washington Nationals have limped along without much of their batting order and, at times, part of their starting rotation. Finally, the regular lineup is mostly intact as they envisioned it in spring training. Excuses have been made for the underperforming because of so many players missing from the lineups.

But with Stephen Strasburg’s return on Saturday from the disabled list, the Nats were faced with a tough decision: stick with struggling veteran (and impending free agent) Doug Fister, or continue to ride the effective (but innings limited) rookie Joe Ross.

The decision is in.

After Thursday’s 8-3 win over Arizona — in which Ross pitched six one-run, no-walk innings — manager Matt Williams announced that Strasburg will start on Saturday in Fister’s regular spot in the rotation and that Fister will work out of the bullpen — for now.

In fact, Fister sat in the bullpen on Thursday and loosened up at one point, prompting all sorts of scuttlebutt on social media.

“It’s a difficult task when you’ve been a starter for so long,” Williams said of Fister moving to the bullpen. “But the opportunities will be long. That’s kind of where we see it. It’s never easy, but he’s willing to go out there and do what he can to help us win a ballgame.”

In seven starts, Ross is 3-3 with a 2.80 ERA and a K/BB ratio of 47/4 in 45 innings. Fister, on the other hand, is 4-7 with a 4.60 ERA and 1.419 WHIP. More troubling is his ground ball rate. Fister has always relied on his heavy sinker to generate ground balls. He has to. His fastball tops out in the mid-to-upper 80s and he can’t just blow hitters away.

For the past three seasons, his ground ball rate has gone down, to the point of now generating fewer ground balls than MLB average. His ground ball out to fly out ratio has, unsurprisingly, also gone down — precipitously, I might add. Along with the ground ball rate, his strikeout rate has dropped while his walk, home run and extra base hit rates have all gone up.

In the past three years, his line drive rate against has gone from 19 percent in ’13 to 23 percent last year to a whopping 32 percent this season, 11 percent higher than MLB average. That’s alarming.

If Fister isn’t injured, he is fast becoming obsolete and the Nats made a wise decision not re-signing him to a lucrative contract as he hits free agency this season.

It’s hard to imagine Fister going to the bullpen and “working things out.” If this was a mechanical issue, they’d have figured that out by now. It seems, more likely, that it’s a deterioration of skill. Time catches up with all ballplayers.

The Nats have to hope that they can milk enough innings down the stretch from Ross to make the playoffs, where they’ll shorten the rotation to four anyway.

But it’s more likely Fister — or another starter — will be needed in September. Hopefully by then, the offense will have come around and the walking wounded recuperated enough to contribute to a division-winning effort and mitigate the performance of the fifth starter.

So finally this season, the Nats have made a decision about playing time based on performance instead of tenure. Could another move come at shortstop? Or is it too late, anyway.

About Dave Nichols

Dave Nichols is Editor-in-Chief of District Sports Page. He is credentialed to cover the Washington Nationals, Capitals, Wizards and Mystics. Dave also covers national college football and basketball and Major League Soccer for Associated Press and is a copy editor for the Spokesman-Review newspaper in Spokane, WA. He spent four years in radio covering the Baltimore Orioles, Washington Redskins and the University of Maryland football and basketball teams. Dave is a life-long D.C. sports fan and attended his first pro game in 1974 — the Caps’ second game in existence. You can follow him on Twitter @DaveNicholsDSP

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