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Tigers vs. Angels Preview: Michael Fulmer, J.C. Ramirez face off in Anaheim

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Fulmer will face an Angels offense struggling to plate runs this season.

Oakland Athletics v Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

Six days ago, Michael Fulmer took the mound against a struggling West Coast team and dominated, holding them to two runs in eight innings. He struck out nine and, dare I say, finally looked like the Michael Fulmer we saw for large stretches of last season.

Here’s hoping Fulmer can repeat that feat on Thursday. After keeping a mediocre Oakland Athletics offense in check last Friday, Fulmer faces an equally uninspiring Angels lineup. Following their 3-1 loss to the A’s on Wednesday, the Angels are scoring just 3.78 runs per game, the second-lowest total in the American League. They are hitting .236/.303/.365 as a team, with only 34 home runs.

While their pitching staff has been decimated by injuries, the Angels’ rotation has been one of the team’s strengths. They have allowed a 4.20 ERA, but rank fifth in the American League with a 22.2 percent strikeout rate. Thursday starter J.C. Ramirez has been a surprise, limiting opponents to a 3.74 ERA in his first eight appearances — including the first five starts of his MLB career, no less.

Whether Ramirez’s breakout is real or not, Fulmer is the better pitcher by a wide margin. He shut down the Angels in two meetings last season, limiting them to a 2.13 ERA and 0.79 WHIP. Can he continue his run of success in 2017?

Detroit Tigers (16-16) at Los Angeles Angels (17-19)

Time/Place: 10:07 p.m., Angels Stadium
SB Nation blog: Halos Heaven
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: RHP Michael Fulmer (3-1, 2.77 ERA) vs. RHP J.C. Ramirez (3-2, 3.74 ERA)

Game 33 Pitching Matchup

Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Fulmer 39.0 22.2 7.0 3.64 0.7
Ramirez 33.2 24.1 8.0 3.29 0.7

If you’re asking yourself “Who in the world is J.C. Ramirez?” you probably aren’t alone. Ramirez, a 28-year-old righthander with just 160 major league innings under his belt, has already been part of seven MLB organizations. He made bullpen appearances at the major league level for four clubs from 2013 to 2016 before posting a solid 2.91 ERA in 46 13 innings for the Angels down the stretch last year.

However, a better question might be “Where in the world did J.C. Ramirez come from?” The Nicaraguan had a 5.13 ERA and 5.10 FIP in 126 13 career innings heading into this season, with just 91 strikeouts to 48 walks. This season, Ramirez has improved everywhere. He has increased his strikeout rate, lowered his home run rate, and posted a walk rate in line with his career averages. He has generated more pop-ups, induced more whiffs, and stranded more runners on base. His 3.29 FIP suggests he might even be getting unlucky, which is wild to think of a guy I had never heard of less than a month ago.

What changed? As he so often does, FanGraphs’ Eno Sarris discovered an adjustment.

In fact, that spin, and lack of ride, probably gave us a hint about what Ramirez “should” be doing with his fastball mix. Look at how his percentiles are all better across the board for the two-seamer. When a pitcher has a low-spin fastball, he won’t get the sort of ride and zip in the zone that can lead to whiffs and bad contact. But he can use that lack of spin to get good sink.

Voila, this year Ramirez has completely shifted over to the two-seam, to the point where you wonder if he’s throwing mostly two-seamers despite the fact that 14% are still registering as four-seamers. Look at how his four-seamer is getting some sideways wiggle now. In any case, he changed his fastball mix.

Oddly, this has resulted in a big drop in ground ball rate, but who am I to argue with the results so far. His hard contact rate is a bit elevated compared to last season, but opponents aren’t pulling the ball as often, which suggests they are a bit perplexed by what they’re seeing.

Key matchup: Michael Fulmer vs. everyone not named Mike Trout

The Angels offense has been one of the worst in baseball this season, checking in with 136 runs scored and an 89 wRC+. Both of those figures rank among the bottom 10 teams in Major League Baseball, and in the lower third of American League teams as well. This is in spite of Mike Trout being an absolute monster, like he tends to do. Trout is hitting .355/.446/.700 with eight home runs and 21 RBI this season. He has a 213 wRC+, which means he has been 113 percent better than the league average hitter.

While it’s lazy for me to not run the numbers and tell you just how bad this Angels lineup is without him, the point stands. Even if Trout runs gangbusters over this Tigers pitching staff — and he will, trust me — the Angels won’t get anywhere in this series if the rest of the lineup is held in check. They have been slightly worse against right-handed pitching this season, and Fulmer is certainly capable of shutting them down.

Outlook

On paper, the Tigers should win this game. FiveThirtyEight gives the Tigers a 52 percent chance of coming away with a W, a figure that seems low until you consider just how bad the Tigers have been in Anaheim in recent years.

There comes a point where the team’s prior struggles at Angels Stadium don’t matter, though. The Angels’ lineup has been bad, and they might be without Mike Trout (who is dealing with a hamstring issue) for another game. Considering how well Fulmer was able to pitch in Anaheim last year, I think they start this series off on the right foot.

Prediction

Fulmer strikes out 10 and the Tigers move back above .500.