It’s a cold and snowy December in Detroit, but one part of Michigan that definitely isn’t cold is the Detroit Tigers’ Hot Stove. After trading Ian Kinsler last Wednesday, the Tigers might not be done making moves. The name getting thrown around as of late is stud pitcher Michael Fulmer. Coming off ulnar nerve transposition surgery — an operation that moves the ulnar nerve into a different position — Fulmer would no doubt be one of the most valuable pieces currently considered “available” on the market.
There’s no question Fulmer generates a buzz, and for good reason: he has been dominant despite pitching through a nerve issue that can cause, at times, a complete loss of feeling in his pitching arm. Now that the surgery is successfully completed, we may see a different pitcher in 2018.
Not that 2016 and 2017 Fulmer were bad. He was one of the best pitchers in the league at preventing home runs and limiting hits. He also put up solid counts of over 150 innings each season despite two shortened seasons, the first due to an innings limit and the second due to the nerve issue. Fulmer is currently on pace with some of the best pitchers of the current generation: Felix Hernandez, David Price, Clayton Kershaw, Jon Lester, James Shields, and, of course, former Tigers greats Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer.
Although it’s difficult to predict exactly what Fulmer will do in the coming seasons, especially given that he was pitching injured in his first two major league seasons, the best indicator of the future is the past. I took Fulmer’s first two seasons, combined them, and averaged the statistics out over 32 starts for each of the next five seasons. In doing this, we obtain a solid prediction of what Fulmer can accomplish if he doesn’t improve at all during the next five years of team control.
While we’re not including any improvements to his performance, we’re also not including any regressions. The likelihood of either is far from certain, but, based on what Fulmer’s shown us the first two seasons, it’s hard to imagine he doesn’t improve in at least a few areas. This will be a good baseline of his expected performance in the coming seasons.
The average front-of-the-rotation starter will see 28-34 starts a season, so 32 starts is a good average for Fulmer. Taking that into account, I then took the first seven seasons of Scherzer, Hernandez, Price, Kershaw, Lester, Shields, and Verlander (minimum 150 innings each) and compared their stats to Fulmer’s projections.
The most glaring number for Fulmer is the lack of strikeouts, which causes a low strikeout-to-walk ratio and a high FIP. FanGraphs’ version of WAR is also a concern for Fulmer, but stems from the low strikeout rate and the cautious approach the Tigers have taken to ensure his innings count doesn’t reach too high. Everything else about Fulmer is solid given his age and experience. He will likely improve from here as he is given more leeway to throw more pitches and more innings, getting him deeper into games.
It may seem normal to listen to offers on someone who is highly coveted, but just stop for a second and think about what the fan reaction would have been if there were confirmed reports that the Tigers were shopping Justin Verlander after the 2007 season. It would likely receive the same response: fans stressing out, and for a good reason. The Tigers should be coming into the 2018 with zero pressure to move Fulmer.
The dismantling and rebuilding of the Tigers organization is painful, but not unnecessarily so. However, if general manager Al Avila decides to pull the trigger on a Fulmer deal, it could push the fanbase’s unhappiness to levels we haven’t seen since they lost 119 games back in 2003 and deal a significant blow to the clubhouse’s demeanor. Rebuilding takes patience, but this is the time you should be finding young guys that are under team control for several more years and have the capability of developing, and build your franchise around them. Fulmer fits that bill perfectly, between that and the stellar numbers he’s put up in his first two seasons, trading him would be a bad idea.