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Tigers’ Michael Fulmer among early contenders for AL Rookie of the Year

Fulmer would be the first American League pitcher to take home the hardware since 2011.

Detroit Tigers v New York Yankees Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

With 14 games remaining until the official halfway point of the 2016 season, Michael Fulmer is making a strong case for American League Rookie of the Year. He may not be the clear favorite at this point, but if he continues his dominance on the mound — like on Friday night against the Kansas City Royals — that will likely change.

The scoreless streak is over, but Fulmer had an impressive run. At 33 1/3 consecutive frames, Fulmer has the longest streak set by a rookie Tigers starter since Fernando Valenzuela tossed 35 scoreless in 1981. His streak also ranked as the longest by any Tigers pitcher since at least 1961, surpassing Jack Morris’ 31 scoreless set July 4-18, 1986.

Facing the red-hot Royals offense, Fulmer traipsed through the lineup for most of the night with ease. His streak would come to a halt on a Salvador Perez solo shot in the sixth, but by then he’d more than shown what he’s capable of. And he’s still only 23 years old with plenty of room to develop.

It’s been five years since an AL pitcher took home Rookie of the Year honors. By contrast, three of the last five National League winners have been pitchers, which isn’t surprising. It’s not an unattainable award, but Fulmer faces an uphill battle with the emphasis placed on hitting in the AL, as opposed to the NL.

Entering play on Friday, Fulmer led all AL rookie pitchers in wins above replacement, with 1 WAR, third overall in AL rookies. Texas Rangers right fielder Nomar Mazara is No. 1, with 1.4 WAR, and the Kansas City Royals’ utility player, Whit Merrifield, is a close second (1.1 WAR). Merrifield’s long-term value is questionable, though, making it a two-man battle for the title, for now.

Fulmer (along with prospect Luis Cessa) was acquired by the Detroit Tigers in a trade that sent Yoenis Cespedes to the New York Mets. At the time, he was in Double-A and that didn’t change when he joined the Tigers’ organization. He finished the season with a 2.84 ERA in 31 2/3 innings at Erie (2.24 ERA between both teams), earning Eastern League Pitcher of the Year honors. He started 2016 with Triple-A Toledo.

After three uninspiring starts with the Mud Hens, the Tigers called Fulmer up as temporary relief when right-handed starter Shane Greene hit the disabled list for a burst blister. It was supposed to be one start with the hope that Greene wouldn’t be gone long, but that didn’t happen. Fulmer, however, gave the Tigers five innings of two-run ball and earned himself another start.

His next three starts were anything but hopeful. He gave up five, three, and five (four earned) runs in that time, and his ERA jumped to an alarming 6.52. He went just five, five, and 4 1/3 innings deep, and the Tigers won two of three by one run in both games. He gave up two home runs and a homer in each of the next two.

Had Greene been healthy to come off the DL or if the Tigers had had better options, he likely would’ve gone back to Toledo. But they didn’t, and Greene wasn’t. Despite the struggles, Fulmer had struck out six batters per start and in his next start appeared to have made a counter adjustment to opposing batters. And that’s where his dominance began, partially thanks to a developing changeup that pitching coach Rich Dubee and catcher James McCann have been forcing him to use with greater frequency.

credit: FanGraphs

On May 21, Fulmer went seven strong and gave up one run on a solo shot, allowing four hits total. He struck out 11 batters and 14 of the 25 batters he faced were on or out in four pitches or less, to include a four-pitch fourth inning. Eight of his strikeout victims went down swinging even with only 16 swings and misses total.

For four straight starts and some change, Fulmer didn’t give up a run. His 33 1/3 scoreless innings is the longest streak in the majors this season. He’s allowed no more than two hits in three of those starts, and he gave up just three in the fourth.

Fulmer dropped his ERA from 6.52 (!) to 2.52 (!!) in five starts and struck out 19 batters in that time. Despite allowing the homer to Perez on Friday, his ERA dropped to 2.43 on the year because of five clean innings. On a night where he didn’t have his best stuff, Fulmer struck out five and gave up five hits, though he walked four — none came around to score.

The Tigers are going to need to conserve his innings as the year progresses. He reached 124 2/3 innings last year, which was a career-high. At 74 2/3 innings pitched already this year, the organization will need to get creative with only 50 innings remaining until his 2015 total is met.

The Tigers could realistically stretch Fulmer out through the end of the season without burning him out. With added rest and the MLB All-Star Break coming up in one month, there’s some wiggle room to work with. At this point, Fulmer has become a solid No. 3 fixture in the starting rotation, and there’s no sign that he’s going to let up anytime soon.

The real test will come when or if the league adjusts to Fulmer, and then it will be up to him to figure out the rest. What Mazara does is out of his hands — until he faces him, anyway. Entering Friday, Mazara has the third-lowest strikeout percentage (17.9) among AL rookies, but his 6.9 walk percentage, 158 ISO, and 113 wRC+ rank fifth, seventh, and fifth, respectively.

Mazara is batting .295/.343/.449 with 10 home runs in 57 games, but his true value lies in his defense. He’s tallied 2 DRS and 5.7 UZR, both tops in AL rookies, and his 12.9 UZR/150 ranks 12th-best among all AL position players.

Mazara’s defense and some offensive value would need to take a tumble for Fulmer to push well past his rookie rival, but it’s clear he can hold his own under pressure and becoming the favorite is conceivable. Fulmer may not have yet established himself as the frontrunner, but that will change if he continues his dominance.