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Tigers’ Michael Fulmer could make history as a rookie pitcher

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Fulmer could be in the mix for the ERA title, Rookie of the Year Award, and Cy Young Awards.

Boston Red Sox v Detroit Tigers Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images

Detroit Tigers rookie pitcher Michael Fulmer currently leads the American League in ERA, with a narrow lead over Danny Duffy of the Kansas City Royals. Fulmer’s 2.58 ERA in 20 starts this season puts him on track to become the first rookie pitcher to capture the ERA title in either league since the Tigers’ Mark Fidrych led the league with a 2.34 ERA in 1976, 40 years ago.

Fidrych worked over 250 innings for that season as part of a four-man pitching rotation. He went 19-9 in 31 appearances (29 starts) with 24 complete games and 97 strikeouts. Fulmer already has more strikeouts than Fidrych did in half as many innings, but will not approach Fidrych’s hefty work load.

The ERA title

In order to qualify for the ERA title, a pitcher must throw at least 162 innings, or one inning per game that his team plays. Fulmer has averaged over six innings per start, and has pitched 125 2/3 innings so far this season. He will need another 36 1/3 innings to qualify, or about six more starts.

Just qualifying for the ERA title is an accomplishment that no American League rookie achieved in 2015. Only three rookie pitchers have qualified over the past three seasons. Fulmer is on pace to join this rather exclusive group.

Anibal Sanchez was the last Tiger to lead the league in ERA, with a 2.57 mark in 2013. David Price won the AL ERA title in 2015, but he did not finish the season with Detroit. Justin Verlander took the honors with a 2.40 ERA in 2011, when he also won the Cy Young Award and was voted the American League’s Most Valuable Player.

Rookie of the Year

Fulmer could also make a run at the American League’s Rookie of the Year award. He leads all AL rookies with 4.8 rWAR. Fulmer’s streak of 33 1/3 scoreless innings was the longest ever by a Tigers’ pitcher since at least 1913, and just shy of Valenzuela’s 33 inning streak as a rookie in 1981.

Jose Fernandez of the Miami Marlins has posted the lowest ERA for a qualified rookie over the past 40 seasons, with a 2.16 ERA in 2013, but he was beaten out for the ERA title by the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw. The best performance by a Tigers rookie pitcher since Fidrych was Dave Rozema’s 3.09 ERA in 1977. Rozema logged 218 innings that year, ranking seventh in the league in ERA.

Fulmer will face competition from the Indians’ Tyler Naquin, who has 14 home runs, 42 RBI, and a batting line of .311/.371/.592, good enough for a weighted on base average (wOBA) of .402. However, Naquin has only 266 plate appearances and 1.2 rWAR, and will not qualify for the batting title this season.

Other rookies in the mix include Nomar Mazara of the Texas Rangers, who has 440 plate appearances and a batting line of .311/.371/.592 with a .342 wOBA, 14 home runs, and 45 RBI. He has only been worth 0.6 rWAR. Max Kepler of the Minnesota Twins could also be in the running. The German-born outfielder has 15 homers and 43 RBI in just over 300 plate appearances.

Justin Verlander is the last Tigers’ player to win the Rookie of the Year Award, but his 3.83 ERA in 197 innings did not win the league title in 2006. Fidrych in 1976, Harvey Keunn in 1953, and Lou Whitaker in 1978 are the other Tigers to win the Rookie of the Year Award.

Cy Young Award

Fulmer could also draw some votes for the American League’s Cy Young Award, although that is more of a reach for him considering his light workload. Even if he wins the ERA title, Fulmer trails only Duffy and the Rangers’ Cole Hamels by one point in ERA+ with a 161 mark. He trails only Hamels among AL pitchers in rWAR, with 4.8 to Hamels’ 5.2. The AL Cy Young contest appears to be wide open this season.

The Los Angeles Dodgers’ Fernando Valenzuela is the only rookie to win the Cy Young Award, in 1981. He also won the Rookie of the Year Award, but he did not win the ERA title that season. Fulmer ranks 17th among American league pitchers in fWAR, and trails several pitchers in strikeout rate and WHIP, as well as innings pitched.

The top candidates for the Cy Young Award include Hamels, Chris Sale of the Chicago White Sox, Corey Kluber of the Indians, Verlander, Duffy, and former Tiger Rick Porcello of the Boston Red Sox.

Verlander ranks second in the league in strikeouts and has arguably been the AL’s hottest pitcher in the second half of the season. Sale and Kluber are in a virtual dead heat with each other in ERA and strikeouts, with former winner Kluber holding a narrow lead in fWAR.

Zach Britton, the Baltimore Orioles’ closer, could also get some Cy Young votes. Britton has worked just 50 innings, but has a minuscule 0.54 ERA with better peripherals across the board than most of the starting pitchers. Whether voters would consider a relief pitcher for the award is questionable, though.