By some measures, Michael Fulmer has been the Detroit Tigers' best starting pitcher this season. And no, I'm not referring to his .750 win percentage (which ranks second to Jordan Zimmermann anyway). Of the six players that have started for the Tigers this season, Fulmer owns the lowest xFIP, at 3.15. His 28 percent strikeout rate also tops the group, and his 3.41 Deserved Run Average (DRA) is second to Justin Verlander.
However, these stats aren't perfect. xFIP and DRA are somewhat reliant on strikeout rate (xFIP more so), so Fulmer's high octane arsenal and smaller sample of innings looks better according to these metrics. xFIP also overlooks Fulmer's home run rate of 1.71 per nine innings, which isn't far behind Mike Pelfrey (1.91) and Anibal Sanchez (1.84) for highest on the team.
This is where the problem lies. When the ball is put into play, Fulmer is allowing hard contact 34.7 percent of the time, well above the major league average of 30.6 percent and second-highest among Tigers starters (you get one guess who's first). This high percentage of hard contact is likely why his home run rate is elevated, so it's difficult to shrug it off as a fluke, at least in the short term. Based on the promise we've seen so far, Fulmer will eventually lower that hard hit rate.
However, results may be inconsistent in the near future, especially as he continues to develop his secondary pitches. He took major strides with his changeup in his dominant outing against the Tampa Bay Rays last weekend, but has to prove he can do it again.
Detroit Tigers (23-23) at Oakland Athletics (20-28)
Time/Place: 10:05 p.m., O.Co Coliseum
SB Nation blog: Athletics Nation
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: RHP Michael Fulmer (3-1, 5.13 ERA) vs. LHP Sean Manaea (1-2, 7.62 ERA)
In some ways, the first five starts of Sean Manaea career have mirrored Fulmer's, minus the "Holy crap, this is what we signed up for!" outing. A former top-100 prospect who switched teams at the trade deadline last July, Manaea made his major league debut on April 29, the same night as Fulmer. He wasn't quite as sharp, walking four batters in five innings while allowing four runs, but his team won all the same (Oakland beat Houston 7-4). Overall, Manaea has a 7.62 ERA, well above his 4.82 FIP in 26.0 innings.
Overall, results have been spotty for Manaea. He gave up eight runs in a brief outing at Fenway Park on May 10 -- his lone road start of the season -- but held the Texas Rangers to a run in 6 2/3 innings in his next start. He only has 17 strikeouts in 26 innings, and has allowed 22 runs on 31 hits. Other than the start against the Rangers, Manaea has looked somewhat overmatched, allowing at least four runs in every outing.
While he has front of the rotation promise at his peak, this variance in performance was apparent in the minor leagues as well. FanGraphs' Dan Farnsworth noted as much in his evaluation of the A's farm system during spring training.
Concerns about his fluctuating velocity are well-founded, working 89-93 one game and 92-95 the next. His low-80s slider flashed plus in his earlier start, but looked like a 40 or 45 for most of the second. A changeup is used as a viable third pitch, though he telegraphs it with a slowed down arm and exaggerated pronation. It too flashed above-average to plus in one or two at bats.
Baseball Prospectus' Chris Crawford noted similar variance, but he and the BP staff were a bit more optimistic about his ceiling.
Manaea’s four-seam fastball doesn’t always have consistent velocity, but on the best days it will touch 97 mph and sit 92-94 with plane and run. His breaking ball has the velocity of a curve but the break of a slider, without being slurvy; it’s just a slider with good depth and tilt that doesn’t have the radar gun readings we typically see. Elite hitters might be able to pick up on the velocity difference—and his arm will occasionally drop when he throws it—but it’s certainly a fine second offering. The change is another average offering with late fade, and his arm speed adds quality deception.
This game may hinge on which Manaea shows up, but it seems that he's still trying to find his footing at the major league level.
Without sounding like too much of a wet blanket, it's important to note that there were a few factors working in Fulmer's favor in his last start against the Rays -- notably, that they lead baseball with a 12.7 swinging strike rate. The A's are the exact opposite of that, with the fourth-lowest swinging strike rate in the American League. The A's hitters will chase from time to time, which bodes well for Fulmer's secondary offerings, but they make contact on more pitches within the strike zone. Pitching at night in the west coast marine layer should help if he makes a mistake or two, but he hasn't quite shown the promise to get hitters out within the strike zone just yet.
Fulmer comes back to earth a bit and the Tigers drop the first game of the series.
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