Trying to limit Michael Fulmer’s innings at this point in the season is silly. That might come off as a hot take, and in a way it is considering I don’t have all of the facts surrounding the situation. However, the Tigers seem to be hurting him and the team as a whole by trying to mix and match his starts in September. After a stellar three-month stretch, Fulmer has established himself as a (hopeful) shoe-in for the Rookie of the Year award. He has been a revelation since his premature arrival in the majors, and one could argue that he saved the Tigers in the middle of the season. Now, the team has reached a crossroads with him.
Prior to this year, his career high in innings pitched was 117 2⁄3 in 2015 between Double-A Erie and Double-A Binghamton (Mets). Between Triple-A Toledo and Detroit this season, Fulmer is currently at 164 innings, which is a pretty solid level for a 23-year-old rookie. Given his history of nagging injuries, particularly a knee injury that shortened his 2013 campaign, it comes as no surprise that the Tigers don’t want to overwork their young ace-in-the-making. However, in the middle of a pennant race that the Tigers are somehow still right in the thick of, the way they are currently handling him isn’t helping him or the team.
Contrary to popular belief, Fulmer has shown no signs of fatigue as the season has gone on. He has averaged over 95 miles per hour on his fastball the entire season, and it’s currently sitting at 95.49 mph for the month of September. His change up has steadily sat between 86-87 miles per hour, and is at 87.1 mph for September. While some may argue that his command has been worse lately, he has actually cut down on his walks in the second half of the season. While his strikeouts are down and the amount of runs he is surrendering are up, that seems to be more of a familiarity issue than a command issue. When he first arrived in the majors, he put the league on notice, and they have been able to adjust to him.
Right now, the Tigers are employing a six man rotation in order to give Fulmer extra days of rest. That would be an acceptable solution if the sixth man in the rotation were a competent starter. Even the fifth man in the rotation, Anibal Sanchez, is struggling to put together quality outings. While Fulmer hasn’t been the force he was earlier in the season — he has a 4.03 ERA since the start of August — he has still been light years more effective than the likes of Sanchez, Jordan Zimmermann, and Mike Pelfrey. That two of those three are making starts as the Tigers try to chase down a Wild Card spot is severely hurting their chances of that happening.
By utilizing an expanded rotation, the Tigers are not only giving themselves what has basically turned into an automatic loss, they are not allowing Fulmer to find any type of routine. Asking a 23-year-old to change his routine between every start is asking quite a bit. When he looks out of sync during a start, the velocity on his pitches suggest it isn’t fatigue, which leaves the door open to argue it has more to do with pitching on an irregular schedule.
So what is the correct answer on how to handle Fulmer? I think it would be better if the Tigers would started him on regular rest for the rest of the way, allowing him to stay in a concrete routine. However, after four or five innings, piggyback his start with Pelfrey or Buck Farmer, long relievers who have proven to be effective in short bursts. You could argue that they should have been doing this with Fulmer for a while now considering he was eating so many innings earlier in the season, but injuries to the pitching staff forced the Tigers’ hand.
Trying to get quality starts out of Zimmermann, Pelfrey, and Sanchez right now is a good way to assure the team’s spot on the couch for the postseason. In order to get to the playoffs, the Tigers are going to need as much out of Fulmer the rest of the way as they can get. If they are lucky enough to get in and win the Wild Card game, they can push Fulmer behind Matt Boyd and Daniel Norris in the pitching order to save bullets. Winning in the playoffs is a bit of a crapshoot anyway. The Tigers just need to find a way to get there, and pitching Fulmer on a more consistent routine will certainly help.