WASHINGTON -- It strikes one fairly quickly that Doug Fister is not your average Major League pitcher.
Your average pitcher hates running between starts. He will do it anyway, with varying levels of reluctance, because he knows he needs to, or because he knows the coaches are watching.
Fister wakes up early the morning after a start to go running alongside his fiancée, with whom he is training for a half-marathon after the season ends.
Of course, much about Fister isn't as it seems. The Merced, California, native looks the part of a big-leaguer, but it took him time to mature into the quiet leader he is today. Originally selected by the team he grew up rooting for -- the San Francisco Giants -- in the 49th round out of Merced Community College, he elected to stay in school. When he was drafted two years later in the sixth round by the New York Yankees, Fister again chose school, returning for his senior year at his father's alma mater, Fresno State.
"The first time being drafted, I knew it was probably a long shot for me to get [to the big leagues], knowing physically I wasn't ready and mentally maybe I wasn't ready at that point in my life," he says. "I had a lot of growing I still needed to do, and for me that was a big step. Going to college and finishing college was very important."
Growing up in school, instead of on the fly as a professional, has paid off in the long run. Fister has shown an uncanny ability to quickly adjust to new surroundings: Traded mid-season from Seattle to Detroit in 2011, the lanky righty went 8-1 with a 1.79 ERA over his final 11 appearances of the season to help the Tigers all the way to the ALCS.
Many players have trouble adjusting to new environments -- not Fister.
"I think one of the biggest things was the fact that I didn't change anything," he says about his approach to the trade. "I figured going into a new team, I needed to be myself. First and foremost, I said, I needed to find out who each guy was, be a teammate to them, and make sure that was taken care of, because the baseball will always take care of itself."
So when he was dealt to Washington this off-season, then found himself stuck on the disabled list for the season's opening month, Fister applied the same philosophy to an even higher degree.
"It was very difficult to be on the DL for the first month of the season," he explains. "But I spent that time really trying to focus on each guy, really trying to have a relationship with each one of them."
Fister leads the meetings before every series about how the pitchers will approach each batter, and what results the fielders can expect. When you constantly rely on your defense, as Fister does, those relationships become paramount.
Despite being one of the tallest players in the league at 6 feet, 8 inches, he is not a power pitcher. Instead, he relies on the sharp plane and downward movement he applies to the ball to generate weak contact, rather than swings and misses. Positioning the defense behind him correctly can make the difference between a good start and a bad one.
If he had enough innings to qualify, Fister's strikeout rate of 5.35 per nine innings would rate 50th out of 51 National League starters. But that by backing off the velocity, he throws a ton of strikes. His 7:1 strikeout-to-walk rate is easily better than the next-highest mark in the National League (teammate Stephen Strasburg's 5.83:1).
In fact, Fister's walked only six batters through 11 starts, spanning more than 70 innings of work, entering play Wednesday night.
The Nationals have been looking for a veteran leader to step into the fourth spot in the rotation and lead by example for the rest of the young staff. They thought they had it in the affable and cerebral Dan Haren in 2013, but Haren's performance on the field -- especially early in the season -- turned him into a scapegoat for the team's overall underachievement.
They may have found their solution this year in Fister.
"As a starting pitcher, you're only out on the mound once every five days," he says. "You've got to find other ways to help, whether it's the four of us who aren't pitching [getting] together to help one another with, say, problems that we've had, or watching the current starter and kind of picking his brain, seeing if he's doing everything. It's a constant check and balance system for us."
Whether taking his perch high atop the pitcher's mound, eyes above everyone, or along the dugout rail, Fister does just that, quietly managing the game.
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