2013 Dodgers in Review #29: SP Stephen Fife

90topps_stephenfife3.70 ERA / 4.35 FIP 58.1 IP 6.94 K/9 3.09 BB/9 (B)

2013 in brief: He really started ten games for the Dodgers? Ten?

2014 status: Valuable depth to have around, even if it’s usually bad news when he’s actually pitching.  

Previous: 2012

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It’s nice to have a guy like Stephen Fife. You bury him on the depth chart and you hope you rarely need to use him, but when you do, you know he’ll at least keep you in the game, which is all you can ask for from your #7 or #8 starter, and… oh, the 2013 Dodgers made it only until their 18th game before they had to use him? That sounds about right.

Yes, with Zack Greinke & Chris Capuano injured, Aaron Harang traded, and Ted Lilly already in the rotation, it fell to Fife to make the surprise start on April 21 in Baltimore when Chad Billingsley‘s elbow gave out. Fife allowed four runs in 4.2 innings, then landed on the disabled list with right shoulder bursitis. (Doing these reviews really reminds me how hilarious the first six weeks of 2013 really were. Sigh.)

Fife made one rehab start in May for Single-A Rancho Cucamonga, and he returned on June 3 to replace Capuano. I’d tell you what he did in that game, but it doesn’t matter, because you might remember June 3 as being “Puigmas“. Fife stuck in the rotation for the entire month of June, and I have to admit that he was actually fabulous. In six starts, he allowed only nine earned runs, striking out 30 against 10 walks. On June 21, I had to take some time out to acknowledge him:

That’s 10 starts over 2012 (top) and 2013 (bottom). Eight times he’s gone at least five innings, nine times he’s allowed two runs or fewer. Obviously, raw “runs allowed” isn’t really the greatest metric in the world because it’s so opponent-, fielding-, bullpen-, and ballpark-dependent, but for a guy we had zero expectations for, that’s a pretty good run. Honestly, the only really lousy start he’s had was in his first of this year when he was a last-second replacement flown to Baltimore when Chad Billingsley‘s elbow gave out, and even then I can’t really kill a guy for having a hard time facing Chris Davis & Manny Machado.

(snip)But if the question is, “do I believe in Fife more than I do Matt Magill?” Right now, yes. “More thanTed Lilly?” Oh hell yes, you better believe I do. For a guy included in a trade that we absolutely destroyed Ned Colletti on — the Trayvon Robinson-for-Tim Federowicz deal, and while I hate to give Colletti any more credit than truly necessary, he was absolutely right on that one, and we were all wrong — he’s proven himself, so far, to be a pretty nice guy to have around. In a season of disappointment, we’ll take what nice surprises we can find.

But after a weird start in San Francisco on July 6 — four runs, but only one earned, yet somehow striking out and walking zero apiece — it began to fell apart, and quickly. Initially, it was announced that Fife would keep his job while Capuano would get bumped to the bullpen by trade acquisition Ricky Nolasco, but that never happened: Fife returned to the disabled list with another bout of right shoulder bursitis.

Fife made two good starts for Albuquerque in late July, then came up to briefly serve as a sixth starter on August 4 in Chicago, and this is where things started to get weird. Fife was good in Wrigley, tossing 5.1 shutout innings. Unfortunately, that was also the game where Hanley Ramirez injured his shoulder running into the stands, and since the team needed to recall Dee Gordon without wanting to disable Ramirez, that meant another trip back to the minors.

The Dodgers then attempted to have Fife work out of the bullpen in Triple-A… and it couldn’t have gone worse. He allowed ten baserunners over his first two appearances, and when they put him back as a starter on August 19, he got only a single out while walking five. In three August starts, he lasted 9.2 runs and had allowed 11 earned runs.

By the end of August, with Capuano struggling and Edinson Volquez existing, I had to focus on Fife’s difficulties just so people would stop calling for him:

Five days later, Fife was back as a starter against Oklahoma City, and it couldn’t have gone worse. He threw 34 pitches, but just 8 for strikes, as he left after having walked five and notching a single out. He at least made it through five the next time out, but then last night only 43 of his 80 pitches went for strikes as he allowed 12 baserunners in 4.1 innings.

Is his shoulder aching again? Did the brief move to the bullpen screw him up? We don’t really know, though Jackson indicates that he seems to be healthy. He’ll still likely get a recall when rosters expand this weekend, but it’s incredibly difficult to count on him right now. As poor as Capuano has been and as terrible as Volquez is, I can’t really say with any degree of confidence that Fife is a more reliable choice given his last month.

Fife did come up, and worked (poorly) out of the bullpen until being given a start on September 17 in order to give Clayton Kershaw an extra day. He lasted only 2.1 innings, allowing four earned runs.

So what we have here is a guy who had a surprisingly effective month of June in the bigs, had difficulty staying healthy, and couldn’t get anyone out at any level in the second half of the year. That sounds like a prototypical eighth starter to me — a guy you like having around, but one you hope you never really need to rely on.

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Next! More starters!

Stephen Fife Lives

fife_2013-06-08At the end of August, in response to a slew of inquiries about why in the world the Dodgers would try out Edinson Volquez rather than give Stephen Fife another chance, I looked at how awful the previous six weeks or so had been for him, including a disastrous stint in the minors when the Dodgers tried to have him work out of the bullpen.

While Volquez has shown signs of utility as a starter with the Dodgers, Fife was recalled as a reliever and… it hasn’t been pretty. He allowed six of the 11 men he faced to reach base on September 6 in Cincinnati, then made Ricky Nolasco‘s disaster start look even worse against the Giants on Saturday by allowing five earned runs in three innings.

So is it just that he’s not a reliever? Is his shoulder barking again? Something else? We’re about to find out, because Fife gets another shot to start as he’ll be taking Clayton Kershaw‘s spot tomorrow night against the Diamondbacks. As Ken Gurnick reports, this is only about giving Kershaw some extra rest late in a long season:

The club believes Kershaw, who already has thrown a Major League-high 223 innings, needs the extra rest as a precautionary measure, especially with the chance of pitching deep into October. He has allowed two earned runs in each of his last two starts, his most recent coming Friday night against the Giants.

…and really, I’m totally fine with that. As you’d expect, the reaction from many fans is “the division isn’t clinched yet, why are we resting guys, Don Mattingly is the worst, blarp-a-bloo!!” but the problem here is really with the offense. If this team is going to make noise in October, it’s going to be because Hanley Ramirez and Yasiel Puig and Andre Ethier and Carl Crawford and friends are all healthy and productive, and whether or not they’re behind Kershaw or Fife really shouldn’t matter at all.

The division is getting clinched either way, so don’t worry about that. We’ve all seen that Kershaw hasn’t been quite himself lately, and with 223 innings already on that arm, the primary focus is making sure he’s at full strength to start Game 1 of the NLDS. As Tony Jackson notes, this also serves the purpose of lining Kershaw up nicely to make that start, too.

Kershaw will instead start on Saturday in San Diego, so after Zack Grienke tonight and Fife tomorrow, Nolasco finishes off the Arizona series on Thursday, and Volquez is likely to face off against his old team against the Padres on Friday.

Where is the Fife?

fife_2013-06-14

As Chris Capuano continues to struggle — 15 earned runs in his last 19.1 innings over four starts — to the point where the Dodgers are about to sign the awful Edinson Volquez as either a replacement or a supplement, the question I continue to get is this: why not Stephen Fife and his 2.47 ERA?

Well, because he’s all sorts of messed up, really, and I haven’t really written about it because I thought it was common knowledge. But judging by the amount of times I hear his name come up, perhaps it’s not.

Fife defied most expectations by pitching reasonably well in a few stints for the Dodgers this year, particularly in seven starts between June 3 & July 6 when he had a 30/11 K/BB and 2.20 ERA in 41.0 innings. That came after a single April start that led to shoulder bursitis that put him on the disabled list and opened the door for Matt Magill; Fife then missed nearly another month with the same issue after that July 6 start against the Giants. (You’ll remember that the original plan was for Fife to keep his role and push Capuano to the bullpen after Ricky Nolasco was acquired, though that never came to be once Fife’s shoulder started barking again.)

When he returned on August 4, it was as a sixth starter to provide rest for the rest of the rotation, since Capuano was coming off scoreless outings in three of his previous four starts. Fife pitched 5.1 scoreless innings in Chicago — not that anyone noticed, since that was the day that Hanley Ramirez hurt his shoulder running into the stands. That injury directly led to Fife going back down, since the team needed to recall Dee Gordon but did not want to disable Ramirez.

This is where things started going off the rails, unfortunately. Back in Triple-A, the Dodgers attempted to convert Fife into a reliever, increasing his flexibility while keeping him available as a sixth starter if needed. He allowed ten baserunners with just a single strikeout in 4.1 innings over his first two appearances, which Isotopes manager Lorenzo Bundy (via Chris Jackson) summarized like this:

“It was a little different scenario pitching out of the pen for the first time,” manager Lorenzo Bundy said. “He wasn’t quite as sharp as he’s been in the past. We’ll just chalk it up to basically a new adventure.

“He was really upset with his performance. He knows it wasn’t what he wanted out of it as far as how he pitched. He made a couple mistakes up in the zone.”

Five days later, Fife was back as a starter against Oklahoma City, and it couldn’t have gone worse. He threw 34 pitches, but just 8 for strikes, as he left after having walked five and notching a single out. He at least made it through five the next time out, but then last night only 43 of his 80 pitches went for strikes as he allowed 12 baserunners in 4.1 innings.

Is his shoulder aching again? Did the brief move to the bullpen screw him up? We don’t really know, though Jackson indicates that he seems to be healthy. He’ll still likely get a recall when rosters expand this weekend, but it’s incredibly difficult to count on him right now. As poor as Capuano has been and as terrible as Volquez is, I can’t really say with any degree of confidence that Fife is a more reliable choice given his last month. The only saving grace here, as we’ve said, is that with a 9.5 game lead, the fifth starter shouldn’t matter all that much. Hopefully.

Dodgers 6, Phillies 1: Four Games Out of First

dominguez_2013-06-30-debutIt’s June 30, and just after both Luis Cruz & Matt Guerrier were finally DFA’d, we saw nine solid innings from Stephen Fife, Jose DominguezChris Withrow, and Paco Rodriguezwith four of the fourteen hits chipped in by Yasiel Puig. Just how we all envisioned it in March, right?

I suppose that’s appropriate, becuase so far this season hasn’t worked out in any way we’d hoped or expected to at all. Right now, none of that seems to matter. Fife was wonderful yet again — seven shutout innings! — and he’s more than making a case to be the one to hang on to his job rather than Chris Capuano or Ted Lilly if and when the Dodgers make a move for a starting pitcher.

Six different Dodgers drove in runs, and that’s really how this offense is supposed to work. It’s supposed to be an offense that’s tough from top to bottom, not just concentrated in a star or two. It’s never been healthy enough to work that way until now… and it really brings home the point that having healthy, talented players available is a lot more important than complaining about the manager when all the talent is on the disabled list.

In the eighth, rookie Dominguez entered to hang on to a 4-0 lead, and if the expectations were merely “be better than Guerrier,” then I think it’s safe to say he exceeded them and then some. Depending on how much faith you place in the always questionable broadcast gun, the 22-year-old righty hit triple digits more than once, blowing away Delmon Young before getting Ben Revere to ground out and Carlos Ruiz to fly out.

But then, who am I kidding by pretending absolutely anything matters other than Yasiel Puig? You’d think that at some point this would slow down, that pitchers would stop throwing him anything at all near the strike zone. Maybe that’s what will happen, some day. Today was not that day: Puig singled in the first, singled in the fourth, tripled in the fifth, and doubled in the the seventh, the first four-hit day of his career and giving him the opportunity to come up in the eighth just a homer short of the cycle. Sure, some of those were friendly scoring calls on some questionable fielding plays, but then doesn’t this team deserve some luck at this point?

Puig struck out on a high fastball from Phillies reliever Justin De Fratus, but 107 plate appearances into his career, he’s hitting .436/.467/.713. I know that can’t keep up, simply because more than a century of baseball demands that it doesn’t. But then, those are “rules” that apply to “humans,” and it’s starting to feel like absolutely none of that applies to Puig.

As the Dodgers head into a day off tomorrow before starting a series in Colorado on Tuesday, things are starting to get real. San Diego lost in Miami. Arizona was swept in Atlanta. San Francisco managed to win, but that at least still goes as a loss for the Rockies. No team in the NL West has won more than four of the last ten except the Dodgers; they’re still in last place, but they’re red-hot and just four games out of first in a jumbled division.

Look out, National League. The Dodgers are healthy, and they’re coming for you.

Stephen Fife Has Actually Been Pretty Reliable

fife_2013-06-14Stephen Fife got a no-decision as the Dodgers lost last night to the Padres, keeping Fife at 1-4 over his short career. But — say it with me now – pitcher wins are stupid, because Fife has somehow managed to be pretty consistent when he’s had an opportunity.

Rk Date Opp Rslt Inngs IP H R ER BB SO HR Pit
1 Jul 17 PHI L,2-3 GS-6 6.0 4 1 1 3 1 0 90
2 Jul 27 SFG W,5-3 GS-7 6.1 6 1 1 3 2 0 93
August Opp Rslt Inngs IP H R ER BB SO HR Pit
3 Aug 1 ARI L,0-4 GS-5 4.1 6 2 2 3 4 1 74
September Opp Rslt Inngs IP H R ER BB SO HR Pit
4 Sep 16 STL L,2-5 GS-5 5.0 4 2 2 1 9 0 88
5 Sep 22 CIN L,0-6 GS-5 5.0 5 2 2 2 4 1 76
26.2 25 8 8 12 20 2
Rk Date Opp Rslt Inngs IP H R ER BB SO HR Pit
1 Apr 21 BAL W,7-4 GS-5 4.2 7 4 4 1 5 1 80
June Opp Rslt Inngs IP H R ER BB SO HR Pit
2 Jun 3 SDP W,2-1 GS-6 5.1 5 1 1 2 5 0 76
3 Jun 8 ATL L,1-2 GS-7 6.2 9 2 2 1 7 2 86
4 Jun 14 PIT L,0-3 GS-5 5.0 6 2 2 3 4 0 93
5 Jun 20 SDP L,3-6 GS-6 6.0 4 2 1 1 6 0 89
27.2 31 11 10 8 27 3

That’s 10 starts over 2012 (top) and 2013 (bottom). Eight times he’s gone at least five innings, nine times he’s allowed two runs or fewer. Obviously, raw “runs allowed” isn’t really the greatest metric in the world because it’s so opponent-, fielding-, bullpen-, and ballpark-dependent, but for a guy we had zero expectations for, that’s a pretty good run. Honestly, the only really lousy start he’s had was in his first of this year when he was a last-second replacement flown to Baltimore when Chad Billingsley‘s elbow gave out, and even then I can’t really kill a guy for having a hard time facing Chris Davis & Manny Machado.

What’s interesting here is that I really have no idea how he’s doing it, though. Fife has increased his strikeouts all the way up to 8.78 this year, which is solid, but he’s somehow done this despite missing fewer bats overall – his swinging-strike rate is down from 7.8% to 6.8%, and overall contact rate has increased from 80.7% to 84.7%. Where there’s a change in that regard is that even though he’s been missing fewer bats within the zone — up from 86.5% to 94.9% — he’s getting more swing-and-miss on balls outside the zone, dropping the contact rate from 66.0% to 59.3%.

Obviously, a guy like Fife isn’t going to blow anyone away with fastballs down the middle, and to survive he needs to get weak contact on low & outside pitches. As you’d expect, he’s getting 59% grounders, though with a .359 BABIP, the sub-par Dodger defense isn’t doing him any favors in turning balls into outs. What Fife has been able to do is avoid the walk, cutting his BB rate nearly in half this year.

Now let’s be clear: Fife isn’t suddenly some prospect find. 54.1 career innings is hardly enough to base a real opinion on, and those stats could easily change in a heartbeat as teams get a report on a guy who very rarely even touches 90. To be honest, I like him just fine as an extra guy, but I would never want to go into a season planning on him as one of your five starters.

But if the question is, “do I believe in Fife more than I do Matt Magill?” Right now, yes. “More than Ted Lilly?” Oh hell yes, you better believe I do. For a guy included in a trade that we absolutely destroyed Ned Colletti on — the Trayvon Robinson-for-Tim Federowicz deal, and while I hate to give Colletti any more credit than truly necessary, he was absolutely right on that one, and we were all wrong — he’s proven himself, so far, to be a pretty nice guy to have around. In a season of disappointment, we’ll take what nice surprises we can find.