It was a weird feeling last July when the Detroit Tigers saw a parade of quality pitching prospects come to the organization instead of being traded away, but the team was wise to recover some of the prospect depth that had been lost in recent years. While pitchers like Daniel Norris and Matt Boyd made their Tiger debuts shortly after being acquired, Michael Fulmer finished the season with the SeaWolves in Double-A Erie after being traded by the Mets. Fulmer had his best season in his career in 2015 and was named Pitcher of the Year in the Eastern League. He was ranked among the top 100 players on most major prospect lists during the offseason, and is regarded as the top prospect in the Tigers' organization.
While some were hoping for Fulmer to join the Tigers to begin the year, he started the season in Triple-A Toledo, waiting for an opportunity to open in Detroit. Fulmer will get the chance to make his major league debut on Friday after making three starts for the Mud Hens in 2016. He has pitched 15 1/3 innings with a 4.11 ERA and 1.37 WHIP this season, tallying 20 strikeouts to go with five walks. He struggled a bit in his most recent start, allowing six runs and three homers in 4 1/3 innings.
A solid repertoire
Fulmer uses a mix of four pitches, but everything begins with the fastball. He saw an uptick in velocity with the pitch last season, as his average landed in the mid-90s with the high-mark around 97 miles per hour. Fulmer also possesses a quality slider, which serves as his best swing-and-miss option. His improved command is evidenced by the pitch’s sharp, downward action, and he has shown an ability to throw it for strikes. Fulmer features a curveball as well, which does have some break on it, but does not grade out as anything more than average. His fourth pitch is a changeup, which most scouts still see as a weakness and an area for development.
Below is an example of how Fulmer likes to use his slider, breaking down at the bottom of the zone. He typically throws the pitch around 86-88 mph and does a good job of utilizing it with two strikes.
Finally breaking out
Though Fulmer looked very impressive last season, it was really the first time that he started to show his potential. He dealt with injuries in both 2013 and 2014, struggling through problems with his elbow and his knee. While Fulmer posted ERA and FIP marks under 4.00 in both seasons while with the Mets’ high Single-A team, he was not inspiring much confidence because of concerns with his longevity. As a result, many saw his future as good but not great and pegged him as a bullpen piece.
However, Fulmer made significant strides last season as he was finally healthy. He pitched a total of 117 2/3 innings between the Mets’ and Tigers’ Double-A teams in 2015 and kept batters hitting under .230. He averaged about a strikeout per inning and he walked around 2.3 batters per nine, both career bests. Fulmer posted a 2.84 ERA and 3.49 FIP before the trade and a 1.88 ERA and 2.63 FIP with the SeaWolves.
Like any pitcher making his major league debut, expectations should be tempered for Fulmer’s start on Friday. He has seen mixed results early on this season, but he does have the potential to generate strikeouts and keep hitters off balance. John Sickels suggests keeping an eye on his off-speed pitches which will likely determine his success. Fulmer’s stay in Detroit may be short this time around, but expect to see him again at some point this season.
The jury is still out regarding Fulmer's long-term future. Writers at Baseball Prospectus and FanGraphs still believe that he may end up in the bullpen, but the Tigers will give him every opportunity to start. The biggest questions revolve around his health and if his injury issues are behind him or not. He will also need to prove that the progress he displayed in 2015 was not just a fluke, and he will hopefully continue to improve both his durability and his command. If Fulmer can to booster his secondary pitches while also handling a full workload, there is no reason that he cannot be a key part of the Tigers' rotation going forward.