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Tigers vs. Pirates Preview: ‘Michael Fulmer Day’ is the new ‘Justin Verlander Day’

Justin Verlander starts used to be an event for Tigers fans. It might be time to start doing the same with Fulmer.

MLB: Spring Training-New York Mets at Detroit Tigers Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

Normally, the excitement from Opening Day gets dampened a bit by the scheduled off day immediately following baseball’s triumphant return. Baseball is back! ...but not until two days from now.

This year, Mother Nature kind of did us a favor. Sure, we had to watch 26 teams open their season before the Tigers finally took the field on Friday, but they made it worth the wait, with a wild 13-10 extra innings seesaw battle against the Pirates. Better yet, we get to do it again the next day.

Update: Welp...

And what a day it is. Michael Fulmer will make his season debut for the Tigers on Saturday, fresh off a strong spring training in which he struck out 15 batters to just two walks in 17 innings. His starts haven’t quite reached the fever pitch that Justin Verlander’s would back in the day — Verlander Day was a thing even last season — but if Fulmer takes a step forward in 2018, they might start to do so. Fulmer is coming off back-to-back three-win seasons per FanGraphs, something Verlander didn’t even quite manage in his first two full major league seasons. Baseball Reference’s WAR also gives Fulmer the edge, with 8.8 WAR to Verlander’s 8.2 despite Verlander holding a 60-inning advantage over his protégé.

It remains to be seen if Fulmer can take the steps forward that Verlander did throughout his career. Fulmer’s career strikeout rate sits at a rather pedestrian 18.6 percent. He has shown a knack for generating weak contact and missing barrels, but he will have to start missing bats entirely to elevate himself into ace-dom.

Pittsburgh Pirates (1-0) at Detroit Tigers (0-1)

Time/Place: 1:10 p.m., Comerica Park
SB Nation site: Bucs Dugout
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: RHP Trevor Williams (7-9, 4.07 ERA in 2017) vs. RHP Michael Fulmer (10-12, 3.83 ERA in 2017)

Game 2 Pitching Matchup

Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Williams 150.1 18.2 8.1 4.03 2.2
Fulmer 164.2 16.9 5.9 3.67 3.5

Trevor Williams is one of a few homegrown products the Pirates will be relying on in their rotation this season. He put up solid minor league numbers after being drafted in 2013, largely thanks to a heavy two-seam fastball that he can run up to 96 miles per hour. He averaged 93.3 mph with the fastball last season, and ultimately had a pretty strong rookie campaign. While his strikeout and walk numbers got a little worse as the year went on, he seemed to settle in after the All-Star break, holding opponents to a 3.35 ERA in 13 second-half starts.

The Tigers will see plenty of fastballs from Williams today. He threw the heater in some form over 70 percent of the time last year, with a handful of sliders and changeups mixed in. The slider is his best secondary pitch, but it doesn’t miss many bats. Opponents whiffed on the slider just 11.7 percent of the time last year, a rate actually lower than his fringe-y changeup. He only used the changeup against left-handed hitters last year, and went almost exclusively fastball-slider to right-handed hitters. Righties had some trouble with him last year, hitting just .225. However, that might be a bit of a mirage; they made hard contact nearly 35 percent of the time, and produced higher home run and walk rates against Williams compared to left-handed hitters. His tendency to work away against lefties led to more soft contact and a lower pull rate, but also a .286 batting average against.

Key matchup: The Tigers bullpen vs. getting outs

If anyone had even an inkling of optimism about the Tigers’ bullpen in 2018, it was quickly snuffed out on Friday. The ‘pen allowed nine runs in seven innings, including three from closer Shane Greene. Alex Wilson had a strong outing until he ran out of gas late — the Tigers probably should have gone to Buck Farmer at that point — but few others did. They will certainly have better days going forward, but coughing up that many runs against a mediocre Pirates lineup (especially one that struggled mightily against right-handed pitching last year) is not an encouraging start.


Fulmer (mostly) gives the bullpen a day off and the Tigers even the series.

Gameday reading