At 5:06 p.m. on Sunday, Doug Fister’s first pitch sailed over the plate for a called strike. The ball returned to the lanky right-hander’s mitt, he stepped back on the rubber and, in a matter of seconds, another pitch was on the way.
Six pitches and three outs later, Fister and the Nationals returned to the dugout, the top of the first inning gone in a flash. The clock on the Jumbotron read 5:08.
It went on like this for much of seven innings Sunday as Fister held the Pittsburgh Pirates to five hits and two unearned runs in a 6-5 victory. He is 12-3 this season and enters his start Friday against San Francisco with a 2.20 earned-run average, which would rank second in the National League behind only Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw if he had enough innings to qualify.
Fister does not throw particularly hard or possess overwhelming stuff. Instead, he employs a stifling pace on the mound, a metronomic rhythm that carries over from one pitch, one at-bat and one inning to the next. He doesn’t waste time in his delivery or his approach, speeding up the game and keeping opposing batters on edge.
“It’s worked into part of my routine, as part of keeping me in rhythm and in sync,” Fister said. “Those kind of things help me stay locked in.”
According to FanGraphs.com, Fister takes only 18.8 seconds between pitches in an average at-bat, which is tied for fifth-fastest in the major leagues among pitchers with at least 10 innings of work. If the season ended today, the 6-foot-8 right-hander would have the quickest pace of any National since J.D. Martin in 2009.
“I like to work fast. But Doug’s extremely fast,” fellow starter Jordan Zimmermann said. “He’s almost too fast.”
Fister first started to focus on pace during his college years, when he played at Merced College before transferring to Fresno State. He said working fast serves both a mechanical purpose and a mental one, helping him repeat the same delivery while not putting too much thought into each pitch.
There is no statistical correlation between pace and success, but Nationals pitching coach Steve McCatty said he emphasizes it with the entire rotation. Gio Gonzalez (20.5 seconds), Zimmermann (20.7) and Tanner Roark (20.8) also have some of the fastest paces among major league starters.
With an average of 22 seconds between pitches, the Nationals work more quickly than all but four teams.
“We always talk about working quick. We always try to do that,” McCatty said. “If it makes the hitter feel like he has to get ready quicker, I think that’s an advantage.”
A quick pace can help pitchers establish a rhythm and gain an edge in each at-bat, but it also helps the defense stay focused. Outfielder Bryce Harper said he loves playing behind pitchers like Fister, whom Harper said works faster than anyone he’s ever played with.
“Just making the game a little quicker, getting back in the dugout a little quicker,” Harper said. “It keeps you in the game a little bit more.”
Added utility man Kevin Frandsen: “It gets you in a rhythm out there. It keeps you thinking along. Your feet are always moving out there. You’re never laying back.”
Each at-bat is a subtle fight to dictate the pace. Hitters can influence this by stepping out of the box or spending additional time on their routines between pitches. But the pitcher has the ball and therefore usually wins the fight. Hitters are forced to adjust.