Michael Fulmer has looked downright unhittable at times in his brief MLB career. He nearly won the ERA title as a rookie in 2006, and followed that up with another solid effort last year. His 3.39 ERA is better than Justin Verlander’s was after two full seasons, and Fulmer looked nigh untouchable again in his 2018 debut last Saturday.
But I’m not sure how far his contact management skills — elite as they may be — can really take him. Long story short: Fulmer needs to start missing some bats. He put up a solid 20.4 percent strikeout rate in his rookie season that, again, was better than Verlander’s (since we’re going there). But unlike Verlander, who upped his strikeout rate by a considerable margin in year two, Fulmer slid back in his sophomore season. He fanned just 16.9 percent of batters last season, while his swinging strike rate dropped from 10.4 percent to 9.3 percent.
It’s a bit too early to say the same things about White Sox righthander Lucas Giolito, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they creep up at some point. Giolito fanned 19 percent of the batters he faced last season, but didn’t record a strikeout in his 2018 debut last weekend. He only netted four whiffs on 89 pitches, and hardly elicited any swings on pitches outside the zone.
Again, we’re dealing with very small sample sizes here, but Giolito also has ace-level talent. If either he or Fulmer don’t start punching out a few more hitters soon, we could start to hear fans getting a bit restless, even if the results themselves are just fine.
Detroit Tigers (2-4) at Chicago White Sox (3-3)
Time/Place: 2:10 p.m., Guaranteed Rate Field
SB Nation site: South Side Sox
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TV , Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: RHP Michael Fulmer (0-1, 1.13 ERA) vs. RHP Lucas Giolito (0-0, 4.50 ERA)
Game 7 Pitching Matchup
If anything, fans of Lucas Giolito have been worried about his strikeouts — and everything else, really — over the past few seasons. He was drafted by the Washington Nationals in 2012, and soon shot to the top of everyone’s prospect rankings. He was a top-100 prospect before the 2013 season, a top-50 prospect the next year. By 2015, a season he began in High-A, he was a consensus top-10 prospect in all of baseball. Some thought he had two elite pitches in his bag, while others “only” gave his curveball a double-plus (70) grade. With an above-average changeup also developing, it seemed like a matter of time before he was the next dominant pitcher in Washington.
But, as tends to happen with pitching prospects, not everything went as planned. Giolito breezed through the minors in 2015 and 2016, but was roughed up in a brief cup of coffee with the Nats in 2016. His velocity was down (supposedly), and some were worried about his command. The internet even wondered if Reynaldo Lopez would eventually be the better pitcher the White Sox received when they shipped Adam Eaton to Washington for Lopez and Giolito. These questions lingered when Giolito struggled in spring training with the Sox in 2017.
Fast forward to today, and Giolito, 23, might already be a post-hype breakout candidate. He finished the 2017 season with a flourish, posting a 1.83 ERA in his final six starts. He also enjoyed a strong spring training, striking out nearly a batter per inning. While he didn’t fan a batter in his first start of the regular season, he still managed a quality start in a comeback win over the Kansas City Royals. He isn’t throwing quite as hard now, but that seems to be by design.
Key matchup: Fulmer vs. home run regression
If there’s one stat that explains how and why Fulmer has been so good since his arrival in the majors, it’s his home run rate. Fulmer has given up 29 home runs in 331 2⁄3 major league innings, or just under 0.8 per nine innings. Since the start of 2016, there have been 1.21 home runs allowed per nine innings league-wide. While great pitches should have low home run rates, Fulmer’s is the very best among all qualified pitchers during that span.
This will be put to the test on Saturday. Fulmer will face off against a White Sox lineup that leads the major leagues with 14 home runs, and is fourth in baseball in runs scored per game. They are hitting for both average and power, and are among baseball’s league leaders in several other categories. While they might not end up as MLB’s most prolific offense by season’s end, they should be a dangerous unit throughout the year. Fulmer will have to hit his spots — especially against lefties, who he struggled with early in his last start — to avoid getting knocked around.
Something a little less ridiculous than the game they played on Thursday.