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Game 22 Preview: Detroit Tigers at Minnesota Twins

Happy Michael Fulmer Day!

Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Watching a player make his major league debut is always exciting, but the fanfare seems bigger when that player is a starting pitcher. Part of that may be circumstance; there is a little more time for hype to build when a starter is announced two or three days beforehand.

Michael Fulmer's debut is a little more special than most, though. The Tigers' highest-rated pitching prospect since Jacob Turner, Fulmer will be watched by Tigers fans and prospect hounds alike, all of whom are eager to see whether the former first round pick can live up to his lofty hype. Fulmer's career looked to be derailed by injuries before a breakout 2015 season at the Double-A level, but now he has a chance to cement his place in the major league rotation.

As for the stats? Don't read too far into Fulmer's 4.11 ERA at Triple-A Toledo. He was dominant in his first two starts of the year, holding opponents to two runs (one earned) in 11 combined innings of work. He struck out 14 while walking four, and only gave up nine hits in those two outings. He ran into some home run trouble in his last start, but shouldn't have to worry about the ball carrying much on a chilly night in Minneapolis.

Detroit Tigers (11-10) at Minnesota Twins (7-15)

Time/Place: 8:10 p.m., Target Field
SB Nation blog: Twinkie Town
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TVTigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: RHP Michael Fulmer (1-1, 4.11 ERA in Triple-A) vs. RHP Phil Hughes (1-3, 3.91 ERA)

Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Fulmer (AAA) 15.1 29.0 7.3 4.41 -
Hughes 25.1 18.5 3.9 3.11 0.6

After a breakout 2014 season in which Phil Hughes set a record with an 11.63 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 209 2/3 innings, he resorted to old habits and fell back to earth in 2015. Hughes maintained a high strikeout-to-walk ratio last season, but his old home run problems reared their ugly head; Hughes allowed a league-high 29 homers, resulting in a 4.40 ERA and 4.70 FIP in 155 1/3 innings.

There were some other warning signs too. Hughes induced a 5.5 swinging strike rate in 2015, down from the 8-9 percent range he posted for three consecutive seasons prior. Hitters didn't chase as many pitches outside the strike zone as the year before, and started making more contact with the ones they did go after.

There was also a mysterious drop in velocity, and it hasn't returned yet in 2016. Hughes is still only 29 years old, and while some velocity decline is expected with age, a two mile-per-hour drop in his 20s is a bit concerning.

Even without the velocity, however, things look a little better in 2016. Hughes is inducing more swings and misses than in 2015, and has only allowed two home runs in four starts. His ground ball rate has skyrocketed despite no significant changes to his pitch arsenal, and his strikeout rate has started to return to pre-2015 levels. He was sharp in his last outing, shaking off a rocky first inning to hold the Washington Nationals to two runs in an efficient seven innings of work.

Tigers hitter to fear: Miguel Cabrera (.415/.455/.902 in 44 plate appearances)
Tigers hitter to fail: Ian Kinsler (.235/.270/.382 in 38 plate appearances)

The Tigers have enjoyed success against Hughes in the past, batting .278/.303/.472 as a team. He has a 4.48 ERA in 18 career appearances against Detroit, but has had his moments of brilliance. Some fans may remember the complete game he threw against the Tigers while pitching for the New York Yankees in 2012, but not many remember the 2-0 record and 0.64 ERA he had against them in 2014. Power threat Jarrod Saltalamacchia has struggled in particular, with 11 strikeouts in 15 plate appearances.

Outlook

The offense's recent resurgence could not have come at a better time for a rookie pitcher making his major league debut. The Tigers have hit well at Target Field in the past, but the Twins have long been a thorn in their side. Hughes has had trouble against Detroit in previous meetings, and it remains to be seen if his new spike in ground ball rate (thus limiting the number of home runs he allows) is for real or just a weird early season trend. If Miguel Cabrera stays hot, Fulmer could have some early run support to back him in his debut.

Prediction

Fulmer works an inefficient five innings but gets his first major league win.

★★★

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