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2017 Tigers player preview: Is Michael Fulmer due for a regression?

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The American League Rookie of the Year set the bar high after a stellar debut season.

MLB: Boston Red Sox at Detroit Tigers Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Even though almost everyone ranked Michael Fulmer as the Detroit Tigers’ top prospect going into the 2016 season, no one could predict what came next. A call-up at the end of April gave Fulmer the chance to prove his worth, and he showed exactly why he belonged in the majors. 26 starts later, he brought home the American League Rookie of the Year award and cemented his spot in the rotation.

It would have been foolish to expect this kind of performance again from Fulmer, but at the same time his debut season was much more than a lucky streak. Sure, it is unlikely for him to go another 30+ innings without allowing a run again, but he showed that he has the tools to be a consistent force at the major-league level.

The raw numbers were great across the board for the rookie in 2016: 3.06 ERA, 3.76 FIP, 7.47 K/9, 1.12 WHIP. Fulmer was one of just two Tigers pitchers to throw over 150 innings and one of three starters to record an ERA under 3.42. With largely the same cast returning in 2017, he has set himself up to be a key piece in the rotation. A major regression on his part would be a significant issue for Detroit this season.

Date GS IP ERA FIP K-BB%
Date GS IP ERA FIP K-BB%
4/29 - 8/14 19 120 2.25 3.46 15.0
8/19 - 9/28 7 39 5.54 4.66 11.0

As great as Fulmer was in 2016, he did not end his Rookie of the Year campaign on the highest note. After an electric beginning to his major league career, including four-straight scoreless outings, he was cruising along into the summer. On August 14, he notched his first complete game – as well as his first shutout – by striking out nine Rangers and surrendering just four hits. While this would be the most impressive start of the season, it also represented a slight decline to end out the year.

Fulmer’s next seven starts were much less encouraging, as his ERA jumped up over three runs and his FIP increased as well. Fatigue may have been an issue, given that this was his first season in the majors, and a constant conversation topic involved around just how much the Tigers were willing to use him. During this last month and a half, Fulmer averaged almost an inning less per start than he did earlier in the season.

Undoubtedly, some of the magic began to wear off for Fulmer down the stretch. While his velocity was for the most part unchanged, he saw a drop in movement on many of his pitches and traded whiffs for contact during his last seven starts.

Fulmer’s pitches were more hittable near the end of the year, and batters took advantage. After holding opponents to a .221 average against his four-seamer, hitters averaged .292 against the pitch over the last month and a half. Likewise, they notched a .300 average against the changeup and a .364 average against the slider after hitting under .200 against them to start the season.

During the first part of the 2016, Fulmer recorded just 18.3 percent soft contact, but kept opponents at a 30.0 percent hard contact rate. While his hard contact rate slightly increased to end the season, his soft contact rate actually increased to 21.4 percent. However, the more noticeable change was in where opponents were hitting the ball. After hitting fly balls around 29.1 percent of the time early on, batters charged this figure up to 37.5 percent later on. Correspondingly, Fulmer’s home run rate almost doubled, going from 0.75 HR/9 to 1.38 HR/9.

The end of the year was a problem for Fulmer, and much of that had to do with his secondary pitches. His slider was not effective at all and his newly groomed changeup was knocked around too. Determining if this is a warning sign or an effect of fatigue is the key to projecting his 2017. With an offseason to rest and recover, the hope is that Fulmer can make the tweaks necessary to stay dominant all season. But even a small step back from his overall 2016 numbers would still be more than acceptable.

Projection systems are not too worried about Fulmer’s sophomore season. Both Steamer and ZiPS put him around 4.00 in ERA and WHIP, which are not spectacular but are probably fair given his limited track record. Both models expect a slight increase in strikeouts and walks with a BABIP near .300, as opposed to his .268 mark in 2016. Almost all of these numbers would put Fulmer right around the middle of qualifying starters last year. If he is able to put up top-40 figures as these systems project, few within the Tigers organization would complain.

Question marks will persist for Fulmer, as they do for all players this early in their career; just a year ago, some experts scouted him as a reliever at best. Many of Fulmer’s early numbers represented a bit of luck, as seen by his ERA compared to his FIP or his low BABIP total. However, even normalizing these figures still leaves a pretty solid arm in the Tigers’ rotation. Statistically he may take a step back, but Fulmer looks like the real deal and should put up another quality season in 2017.