Tonight, RHP Michael Fulmer of the Detroit Tigers will take the mound against the Kansas City Royals, making his 10th start of the season as well as just the tenth start of his career. More importantly though, the 23-year old will be entering this start with a 28 1/3 inning scoreless streak, covering a span of just over 4 games (you can check out Fulmer’s game log below). In his four most recent starts, all being scoreless, Fulmer is 4-0, as is his team. On the season, Fulmer is 7-1, and the Tigers are 8-1 in the games that he has started. For a team that is 34-32 to start the season and is in the midst of what seems to be a four team race for the division crown, it is clear that Fulmer has been instrumental to the Tigers’ season. Well, I am here to tell you that the Michael Fulmer is for real, well sort of…
First off, let me qualify my use of the phrase “sort of” from above. I do truly believe that Michael Fulmer is a middle of the rotation starter in the big leagues, potentially even a number two if he can continue to improve on his control. That being said, an ERA of 2.52 is not where Fulmer is going to finish the season. Given his slightly below average pitch movement and still improving control, Fulmer is likely to finish in the range of what his 3.58 FIP has him pegged at, much in thanks to his above average velocity. Of course a 150-inning, 3.50 ERA season from a rookie would receive very few complaints.
Looking at Fulmer’s build, make up and peripherals, there is plenty for Detroit fans to be excited about. Listed at 6’3″ and 200 pounds, durability shouldn’t be an issue. In fact, throughout his first 9 starts of the 2016 season, Fulmer has actually increased has average fastball velocity as games have gone on, from 96.14 mph the first time through the lineup to 96.67 mph the third time and on. And even though he has only been okay in the walks department so far this season (3.19 BB/9), Fulmer did manage a 2.2 BB/9 last year in the minors, meaning there is some likelihood for progression.
To go along with his aforementioned four-seam fastball, Fulmer’s pitch arsenal includes a very hard sinker that averages 95.62 mph, a change-up that travels almost 10 mph slower than his fastball at 86.64 mph, and a slider that also travels faster than usual at 88.79 mph. As you can see, velocity is a big part of Fulmer’s game, something to take into account when looking at him long-term, as loss of velocity due to age can have dramatic effects on a pitcher’s performance. It would be intriguing to see how Fulmer would perform if he could get his walk rate down just a bit more. Likewise, a major plus would be for him to develop more movement on some of his pitches. According to Brooks Baseball, in 2016, both Fulmer’s fourseamer and sinker have had less movement than typical, while his slider has had less than expected depth.
By adjusting his pitch mix and locations throughout his starts, however, Fulmer has been able to keep hitters guessing, accumulating 52 SO in 53.2 IP (8.72 K/9). For example, Fulmer uses his fourseam fastball mostly up and away to both lefties and righties, while working inside to righties and outside to lefties with his sinker, as well as primarily keeping his change-up and slider towards the bottom of the strike zone. Furthermore, he tends to utilize his fastballs more often early in games, featuring his change-up a bit more his second and third times through the order.
With what has been provided so far, it is fair to wonder why I am so confident that Fulmer’s performance will decline by about a full earned run between now and the end of the season. Basically, while Fulmer’s performances thus far have been very good, they have been made even better thanks to a little bit of luck. Fulmer’s BABIP is currently only .262, about 40 points lower than league average. Simultaneously, his 83.9% strand rate is about 10% to 15% higher than usual. Both of these numbers could and will regress back towards more normal levels. In fact, given his better than average 47.9% ground ball rate, I would bet that Fulmer’s BABIP is the number that will correct itself first. The reasoning here is that ground balls typically result in hits more often than fly-balls, but can also help strand rates by inducing double plays.
So there you have it, Michael Fulmer is for real, but only sort of. The potential is certainly there, but he does not yet have the peripherals to support a sub-3 ERA for a season in its entirety. Fulmer made great progress between 2014 and 2015 in the minors and in 2016 has shown the potential for a promising career. In the end, only time will tell, so for now, lets just sit back and enjoy the ride.
Statistics courtesy of http://www.fangraphs.com/.
Pitch f/x courtesy of http://www.brooksbaseball.net/.
Header photo courtesy of Fantasy411.