It seemed like every fourth or fifth day during the end of the 2014 regular season, through August and September, Milwaukee Brewers manager Ron Roenicke would be asked pre-game – and then postgame – about what was going on with Mike Fiers, and if the 29-year-old right-hander could "keep it up."
Roenicke would smile and shake his head, nearly every time.
For those two months, as the Brewers foundered to a 22-31 record and had to fight to just to finish with a winning record, Fiers went 6-4 in 10 starts.
He walked just 14 and struck out 71 in 64 2/3 innings with a 2.09 earned run average. Opponents only hit .175 off of him through all of those innings, and he never gave up more than three earned runs. He allowed one run or less five times.
Roenicke was also consistently asked because, well, Fiers had one of the most troubling years person, let alone a baseball player, could have in 2013.
His mother, Linda, had fallen very ill. On the field, in 11 games (three starts) with the Brewers, Fiers was rocked for 18 earned runs in 22 1/3 innings (7.25 ERA). Back in minors, his season ended prematurely when a line drive broke his pitching arm in mid-June.
Once he was cleared to begin a rehab program in Arizona in August, his mom convinced him to go, despite her worsening condition. She passed away shortly thereafter.
After pitching in winter ball, he returned re-centered.
In 17 starts for Class AAA Nashville, Fiers went 8-5 with a 2.55 ERA while striking out 129 in 102 1/3 innings. He made a handful of appearances in June – three in relief, one start – before coming up for good in early August.
And, Fiers pitched like he did two years prior. But the questions about his performance and his consistency remained.
"He did it the first time he came up two years ago, so I don’t know," Roenicke said, almost in exasperation, in late September. "He’s got good stuff, he’s very deceptive, he’s got good command, he’s got a lot of different pitches. And that’s what we saw from him for a lot of starts. I don’t know what happened when he lost that a little bit, he lost his confidence but he‘s got it back."
It’s just that Fiers doesn't have, and never will have, the "measurables." His fastball won’t pop like Wily Peralta’s or Jimmy Nelson, his offspeed pitches won’t dance and bite. His delivery doesn't look as fluid as Kyle Lohse’s or Yovani Gallardo’s.
He doesn’t have the pedigree. The 22nd round out of Nova Southeastern University will always follow him around.
But in baseball, especially in the major leagues, it’s about production. Can you get major league hitter out on a consistent basis?
And Fiers has, and frankly, in whatever role he’s been pushed into while wearing a Brewers uniform:
Roenicke attributed his success in 2014, which surpassed even his surprising numbers of 2012, to better command. But, 65 percent of his pitches were for strikes in both seasons.
He was walking batters at a lower rate last year, and batters, arguably, made less solid contact – his batting average of balls in play was just .227 in 2014 as opposed to .323 in 2012.
"I wouldn’t say I’m surprised," Fiers said about his production. "I feel like I can pitch this way. I feel like I can compete at this level and I can compete well at this level. If I’m doing what I’m doing and focused on what I need to do on the mound and throwing strikes and spotting the ball up, I feel like I can pitch like this and help this team out."
What the production means is a shot to start in the rotation come spring training.
"If I am (in the rotation), who knows, but I don’t want to think that way," Fiers said. "My mindset is to where I still gotta earn my spot. Coming in to spring training, nothing is given to you. I don’t have a five year deal. So, it’s nothing along those lines. So for me, mentally, I’ve got to prepare myself to come in to spring training ready to go. I need to win a spot. I need to prove to them that I’m still pitching how I was. Because if I’m not, then I don't deserve to be up here."
He’ll be given that shot, provided no other more proven starter is brought in.
And, if Fiers does keep that spot through the spring and he throws against the Pittsburgh Pirates during the Brewers season-opening homestand, it means Fiers’ leash is undoubtedly shorter than the four men who took the ball in front of him.
He’s been through that before, too.
What it means is … nothing.
Fiers’ entire career has been played with such specters looming, and the requisite chip on his shoulder.
"I will say my experiences before will definitely help me, mentally and physically," Fiers said. "So, at the end of the 2012 (season), long year in the big leagues, obviously that extra month not being in the minor leagues – that was my first time up, not my first time up, but pitching a full year like that. So, I don’t think I knew what to expect going into the offseason (of 2013), how to handle my arm throwing-wise and conditioning wise.
"So, I think I have a better feel this year. So, going into the offseason, I know what I need to do to get ready for a full year being in the big leagues and pitching in an competitive race in the end, in September. We’re always in it, so I just gotta be mentally and physically strong, and a lot f that happens with my work ethic in the offseason. I’m going to up my work outs and up the things I do and stay on a regular basis and come into spring training ready."
Jim Owczarski is an award-winning sports journalist and comes to Milwaukee by way of the Chicago Sun-Times Media Network.
A three-year Wisconsin resident who has considered Milwaukee a second home for the better part of seven years, he brings to the market experience covering nearly all major and college sports.
To this point in his career, he has been awarded six national Associated Press Sports Editors awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, breaking news and projects. He is also a four-time nominee for the prestigious Peter J. Lisagor Awards for Exemplary Journalism, presented by the Chicago Headline Club, and is a two-time winner for Best Sports Story. He has also won numerous other Illinois Press Association, Illinois Associated Press and Northern Illinois Newspaper Association awards.
Jim's career started in earnest as a North Central College (Naperville, Ill.) senior in 2002 when he received a Richter Fellowship to cover the Chicago White Sox in spring training. He was hired by the Naperville Sun in 2003 and moved on to the Aurora Beacon News in 2007 before joining OnMilwaukee.com.
In that time, he has covered the events, news and personalities that make up the PGA Tour, LPGA Tour, Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Hockey League, NCAA football, baseball and men's and women's basketball as well as boxing, mixed martial arts and various U.S. Olympic teams.
Golf aficionados who venture into Illinois have also read Jim in GOLF Chicago Magazine as well as the Chicago District Golfer and Illinois Golfer magazines.