I’m sure everyone’s heart sank when they received the news that Michael Fulmer felt a pinch in his right shoulder, resulting in a diagnosis of shoulder bursitis. We all anxiously awaited the results of his MRI, hoping he would avoid the disabled list. It resulted in the best outcome possible, as his start was only pushed back three days.
Fans will hope Fulmer is 100 percent healthy when he returns, as he has had a couple of rough outings recently. He gave up five earned runs in back-to-back starts, something he never did in his 26 starts last season. However, even with those rough couple of outings, Fulmer has looked much better this season than he did at the same point last year. This, coupled with the struggles elsewhere throughout the Detroit Tigers’ rotation, makes receiving solid performances from him even more important.
There are many things Fulmer is doing better this year than he was last year. The most surprising is how he has cut his home run rate in half; he gave up an average of 0.91 home runs per nine innings last year. This year, that rate is down to 0.45 per nine innings which leads qualified starters in the American League. In fact, Fulmer hasn’t allowed a home run in seven consecutive starts. His longest streak last season was four starts in a row without allowing a home run.
The home run rate is crucial to Fulmer’s success, but one thing that has benefitted him has been an above average ability to be efficient with his pitches. We saw that last year, when Fulmer threw fewer than 100 pitches in 16 of his 26 starts. He only threw more than 105 pitches on two occasions. Even with tight limits on his pitch count, he worked at least seven innings in 10 of his 26 starts last year, which is incredible.
This season, he has already done that seven times through his first 12 starts. In only one start so far has he pitched fewer than six innings, and that was his most recent start against the Angels last Thursday.
We can also credit his lower walk rate (currently eighth in the majors this season) for helping him pitch further in games. He had a walk rate of 6.5 percent the previous year, whereas it’s sitting at 4.9 percent in 2017. Fulmer is actually almost exactly halfway to his inning total from last season, yet he has only walked a third of the batters he did last year. His lower walk and home run rates have boosted his field independent pitching (FIP) numbers; he is more than two-thirds of a point lower, at 3.03 this season compared to 3.76 last year.
Not only do the numbers favor a better season for Fulmer, but his stuff has looked much better this year. His average fastball velocity is sixth among qualified starters at 95.4 miles per hour, and his slider is second at 89.9 mph.
He showcased his best stuff of the season thus far in his seven inning start on June 2 against the Chicago White Sox. It was Fulmer’s first start of the year that did not result in a quality start. Despite that, he threw his fastest pitch at the major league level, a 98.9 mph two-seam fastball against former Tiger Avsail Garcia.
Michael Fulmer is showcasing 99mph with absurd life. Wow. pic.twitter.com/e2PFqxoV5p— Pitcher List (@ThePitcherList) June 3, 2017
Since we know velocity isn’t everything when facing major league hitters, a good way to measure the value of a pitch is pitch linear weight. Pitch linear weights weigh the positive and negative outcomes of each pitch and sum them up to see whether a particular pitch is having more good outcomes or bad.
Fulmer’s fastball was only ranked 15th in linear weight among qualified starts when weighted to hundred pitches. That should be shocking and maybe a bit worrying, considering the good numbers he has been putting up.
However, digging deeper we find that Fulmer’s four-seam fastball is actually first in the league in linear weight when weighed to 100 pitches. It’s his two seamer that is not doing so well, ranked 33rd among those same pitchers. His four seamer has been one of the best in baseball in many different outcomes.
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Even though he has such a good four-seam fastball, he is using it less often. He ha heavily used the two-seamer in his last five starts, and has given up 43 hits in 33 1⁄3 innings while giving up 18 runs and only recording 18 strikeouts in those outings.
Since the two-seamer is struggling, he may want to go to the four-seamer more often. Based on the current stats, it’s possible that an adjustment like that would help him limit the excess of hits and runs he has given up recently. Since the four-seamer has had better outcomes than the two-seamer, it would make sense to slightly adjust the usage.
Whatever adjustments Fulmer decides to make, we can be confident that he will excel and continue to perform as his has since the start of the season. At this point, the only real concern is his health. We’ll look for a bounce back outing this weekend against the Tampa Bay Rays to prove that he is exactly where he should be.