For the first time since Justin Verlander won it in 2006, a Detroit Tigers player takes home the American League Rookie of the Year Award. Michael Fulmer is the first pitcher to win it since Jeremy Hellickson in 2011, and he’s just the second Tiger to take home the hardware since Lou Whitaker in 1978.
The Tigers knew Fulmer had the potential to one day fill a rotation spot, but no one expected him to fill such large shoes in so short a time — or dominate as well as he did. Tigers general manager Al Avila said as much, and it was a sentiment echoed by the team throughout the year.
Entering the 2016 season, Fulmer wasn’t even a consideration to join the rotation. He began the year in Triple-A Toledo after a dominant 2015 at the Double-A level between the Mets and Tigers. But with just a fastball and slider, he lacked a dominant third pitch. Once in Detroit, though, James McCann pressured Fulmer to utilize a changeup that not only kept Fulmer in the big leagues, but it set him apart as one of the best in the game.
The Tigers’ starting five appeared set with Justin Verlander, Jordan Zimmermann, Anibal Sanchez, Mike Pelfrey, and Shane Greene. But Greene landed on the disabled list with a burst blister and Detroit had to improvise. After just three games for the Mud Hens, Fulmer was called up, and the rest, as they say, was history.
Quite literally, in fact. Fulmer made history, seemingly at every turn. His 33 1/3 scoreless innings pitched set a new record for a Tigers rookie pitcher, and was the longest scoreless streak for any Detroit pitcher since 1961. He also became the first Tigers pitcher to go eight straight starts and give up one-or-less runs since at least 1913.
Fulmer’s 3.06 ERA nearly won him the ERA title — third only to Toronto’s Aaron Sanchez (3.00) and teammate Verlander (3.04) — as he fell shy of qualifying by three innings. He would’ve been in contention for the Cy Young had he shouldered a heavier innings workload. After four starts (two of which weren’t great), he found his comfort zone and cemented his dominance in the AL.
Fulmer tired in the final month, but overall he was unrivaled — despite whispers of Gary Sanchez’s hot September being enough to wrest the title away. The final voting wasn’t so close, though; Fulmer earned 26 of 30 possible first-place votes.
As impressive as his one-run, eight-start streak was, Fulmer’s defining moment of the season was his first career shutout on Aug. 14. Making his 19th start of the year against the AL West first-placed Texas Rangers, the 23-year-old rookie gave up just four singles. He struck out nine, walked no one, and earned the highest Game Score of the year of anyone on the Tigers’ pitching staff.
The Tigers had to juggle Fulmer’s workload after the MLB All-Star break, and the altered program/career-high workload affected his performance some. But from the time he was called up until Aug. 14, he boasted a 2.69 ERA with 7.73 strikeouts per nine and 2.40 walks per nine. His starting ERA was the lowest in baseball and he finished the season with a combined 174 1⁄3 innings pitched between Toledo and Detroit.
Without Fulmer, the Tigers wouldn’t have finished just shy of getting into the postseason. They certainly would not have been in second place to close out the year. The rotation and bullpen may have been a disaster from being overworked. Not only did he make a name for himself as a 2016 rookie and one of the best starters in the game, he saved the Tigers’ season.