It's hard to remember a Detroit Tigers pitcher who left so many fans buzzing after his MLB debut like Michael Fulmer did on Friday evening against the Minnesota Twins. Former top prospect Jacob Turner posted a similar stat line, but allowed three walks and five stolen bases in a loss against the St. Louis Cardinals in 2011. Lesser prospects like Kyle Ryan posted better results -- Ryan threw six shutout innings in his debut in 2014 -- but many saw that outing as an aberration, not a sign of things to come.
Other than Daniel Norris' stellar Tigers debut last season, we probably have to look back to the debut of Justin Verlander in 2005 to find the same combination of prospect hype and post-game buzz.
We're not here to make comparisons, especially ones that Fulmer will ultimately fail to match. Instead, let's look at Fulmer's PitchFX data to break down what has Tigers fans so excited.
|Four-seam fastball||19||95.9 / 97.0||8 (42.1%)||2 (10.5%)|
|Two-seam fastball||42||94.8 / 96.7||23 (54.8%)||4 (9.5%)|
|Slider||26||88.2 / 90.2||13 (50%)||4 (15.4%)|
|Changeup||6||86.1 / 89.0||4 (66.7%)||1 (16.7%)|
Fulmer relied heavily on his fastball in his debut, throwing it in 61 of his 93 pitches. While we don't have any information about pitch grips, he showed two distinct movement profiles, resulting in 19 four-seam and 42 two-seam fastballs. The four-seamer was one of Fulmer's out pitches, with 11 of the 19 being thrown in two-strike counts. Fulmer also looked to elevate the four-seamer as much as possible, throwing most of them at the top of the strike zone.
This will be an effective strategy for Fulmer going forward. The pitch averaged 10.9 inches of vertical movement according to FanGraphs, well above the league average of 9.5 inches. More vertical movement on a fastball creates a "rising" type action in which the pitch stays elevated longer than pitches with less spin. This makes it a great weapon in nearly any count; hitters find it tough to lay off a high fastball, but the high spin rate makes it tough to hit.
Fulmer's two-seamer also showed above average movement, which helped him keep Twins batters from hitting it squarely despite its poor location. He was throwing gas -- according to FanGraphs, his average two-seamer velocity at 94.8 miles per hour -- but left it up in the strike zone far more often than he should have.
We saw this start to become a problem in the fourth and fifth innings, when the Twins began to time his fastball better. They scored a run on three consecutive two-out singles in the fourth, all of which were sharply hit and straight up the middle. Five of their seven hits on the evening came off the two-seam fastball, which is to be expected when he is still developing a changeup to keep hitters off balance.
There were bright spots, though. Fulmer induced four whiffs on 42 two-seamers, a healthy 9.5 percent rate. His 5.8 inches of horizontal movement is also well above league average, and it helped him induce a 50 percent ground ball rate. If he can start to spot the two-seamer lower in the strike zone, hitters will have a much tougher time making hard contact against it.
Hoo boy. Fulmer went to his slider early and often on Friday, throwing it 26 times. He dusted Brian Dozier with a pair of sliders in their first matchup, resulting in Fulmer's first career strikeout.
The scary part? That was the hittable slider. Fulmer did a good job of burying the slider down and away, but was able to get away with a few elevated pitches because of how electric it is. He averaged 88.2 miles per hour with the slider and ramped it up as high as 90.2 miles per hour, making it one of the hardest sliders in all of baseball. Only 17 pitchers are averaging a higher velocity on their slider this season, and many of them are within decimal points of Fulmer.
The actual results are somewhat underwhelming. He induced four whiffs on 26 sliders thrown, a 15.4 percent rate. This should improve with time, especially as he continues to improve his command, but a higher whiff-per-swing rate (whiff/swing) would help him be more efficient. Former Tiger Max Scherzer has a career 42.1 percent whiff/swing rate on his slider, while Fulmer was at 30.8 percent on Friday.
I don't mean to go all Jeremy Bonderman already, but Fulmer's overall ceiling may depend on how well he is able to develop a third pitch. He threw six changeups on Friday, many of which came after he had given up a run on three hits in the fourth inning. The best example came against lefthander Danny Santana, who whiffed on a changeup in the strike zone in an 0-1 count.
Fulmer's changeup doesn't have the sexy movement or spin profile that his fastball and slider do, but it has the potential to become a serviceable pitch. The above GIF is a great example of a hitter looking for Fulmer's mid-90s fastball and getting a pitch 10 miles per hour slower than that. Fulmer averaged a difference of nearly nine miles per hour between his fastball and changeup in his start, a healthy ratio if he can develop more feel for that third pitch.
It's OK to get excited about Fulmer after this game. He showed signs of an electric arsenal with potential for more, holding a better-than-the-stats-look Twins lineup to two runs in five innings. He still has room for growth, but is probably capable of sticking in a major league rotation right now.
This doesn't mean we should get carried away. It is one start, after all. Fulmer isn't the next Justin Verlander, by any means, but could become a valuable part of the Tigers' roster, both in 2016 and beyond.