This is an easy post to write after Wednesday night. Stud rookie Michael Fulmer wasn’t so studly in his latest outing, falling apart in the fifth inning of a 5-1 victory over the Seattle Mariners. Fulmer hit two batters in a row, the last one with the bases loaded, before being lifted after just 74 pitches.
Fulmer’s shortest outing of the season comes just after the Tigers announced that they are juggling their starting rotation over the next week in order to limit his season-long workload. To no surprise, this announcement was greeted with mixed reviews from the Tigers’ fanbase. Some fans like the idea of extending Fulmer as far into September as possible, while others would rather see the Tigers keep him in his rhythm and deal with the consequences of a possible shutdown later. Nearly everyone agrees that an innings cap is a good idea; the current argument just centers around how Fulmer and the Tigers should get there.
I was ready to write this no matter how Fulmer pitched on Wednesday, but the Tigers are right to limit their rookie starter’s workload early on this season. Fulmer had been brilliant over his last six starts prior to Wednesday, but he was starting to show signs of fatigue in his past couple outings. He walked four batters and only landed 14 of 25 first-pitch strikes in his start against the Kansas City Royals on June 17, and gave up a lot of hard contact before falling apart early against the Mariners on Wednesday.
Fulmer told reporters he was feeling lightheaded after Wednesday’s game, and it seems like he could use the break. He is throwing more pitches than ever before — he has logged four 100-pitch starts since May 21, something he only did once in all of 2015 — and against much better competition. While many of his innings have been low stress in terms of leverage, he is still working through the major leagues for the first time and trying to earn his keep.
Fulmer’s injury history is also worth mentioning. The former 1st round pick missed time due to knee and elbow injuries during his time in the New York Mets’ farm system, and even got a late start to the 2015 season after having offseason elbow surgery in 2014. Last year was the first time Fulmer had been healthy enough to throw 120 innings, and he only pitched 252 2/3 combined innings in the three seasons prior to 2015. His body has yet to prove it can withstand the pounding of a 150-inning season, let alone one on pace to top 180 frames or more.
The main argument against skipping Fulmer’s turn in the rotation has more to do with the pitcher(s) replacing him. The Tigers are fortunate to have a pair of veterans in Anibal Sanchez and Mike Pelfrey capable of logging innings in Fulmer’s stead, but neither pitcher has been very good in 2016. Sanchez has looked solid in recent relief appearances, but his problems in the later innings are well documented. Pelfrey has just been bad. The Tigers want to preserve Fulmer’s arm for a potential playoff run, but too many bad outings from the two vets and there might not be any meaningful September innings to be had.
This is a risk the Tigers have to take, though. Fulmer has the raw stuff to get major league hitters out even if he’s not at his sharpest, but it’s clear after his last two outings that he needs a break. And who knows? Perhaps the periodic rest will keep Fulmer sharp for his other starts, which the Tigers will need if they are to keep pace with the Indians and Royals in the AL Central.
The Tigers have not publicly put a number on how many innings Fulmer will throw this season, but the current estimate sits anywhere from 150 to 160 frames. At his current pace, he would have hit that mark in early September, if not sooner. Skipping a start here and there throughout the next few months may only buy him a few more weeks at the end of the season, but the Tigers can then reassess how he is holding up to the grind of a long season (and, hopefully, a pennant race).