For six innings against the Seattle Mariners, Michael Fulmer looked like his old self. The 25-year-old righthander hasn’t been awful this season, per se, but had coughed up 11 runs in his previous 10 innings, ballooning his ERA by a run and a half. So when he held a potent M’s lineup scoreless for six frames, Tigers fans — well, those still awake at that point — perked up a bit.
Unfortunately, things fell apart for Fulmer in the seventh. He walked two batters and coughed up a bloop single, and was ultimately charged with three earned runs, spoiling a previously dominant outing.
We can question whether Fulmer should have been pulled — he was only at 89 pitches after Ben Gamel’s single and hadn’t given up much hard contact — but that just ignores the big picture. Fulmer still hasn’t quite figured things out in 2018, especially as his profile evolves. After racking up 33 strikeouts in his last 28 1⁄3 innings, he has now upped his strikeout rate to 21.1 percent, a career-best. He is also walking 3.5 batters per nine innings during that stretch, a career-worst.
The extra runs may just be a fluke, though. Fulmer’s FIP has decreased to 3.53 in his last five starts, and has only allowed 22 hits in 28 1⁄3 frames. He has only given up three home runs in that stretch as well. Things otherwise look just fine for Fulmer, who can’t quite seem to shake the big inning lately.
Will things turn around against the Twins on Wednesday?
Detroit Tigers (20-27) at Minnesota Twins (20-23)
Time/Place: 1:10 p.m., Target Field
SB Nation site: Twinkie Town
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: RHP Michael Fulmer (1-3, 4.35 ERA) vs. RHP Kyle Gibson (1-2, 3.96 ERA)
Game 49 Pitching Matchup
An alternate title for this article could have been “Kyle Gibson has figured out strikeouts.” The 30-year-old has a career strikeout rate of just 16.6 percent in nearly 800 innings, but is fanning nearly 10 batters per nine innings through his first nine starts. He has struck out at least five batters in seven of those nine outings, something he did in only 13 of 29 starts last year. Opponents are swinging and missing on 12.2 percent of his pitches, a career-high.
So, what changed? I have no clue.
Gibson has changed his pitch mix slightly over the past couple years. He is throwing his curveball more often, a pitch that has generated a whiff rate of almost 19 percent this season. Opponents are fanning on his slider a whopping 30 percent of the time, but he is throwing it less often than before. He hasn’t changed his pitch sequencing all that much either — at least not in an easily recognizable way.
My best guess has to do with his fastball. Gibson has been throwing his four-seam fastball more than ever. It isn’t generating any whiffs on its own — opponents have swung through it just six times all year so far — but its elevated plane seems to set up his off-speed pitches more effectively.
With the four-seam fastball riding higher in the strike zone than Gibson’s other pitches, it changes a hitter’s eye level more effectively than the sinker, which tends to work better at the bottom of the zone. He has generated plenty of ground balls with that sinker over the years, but by elevating his four-seamer, he has seemingly unlocked a bit more potential in his off-speed pitches, since hitters now have to worry about the fastball upstairs a bit more when behind in the count.
Key matchup: Fulmer vs. left-handed hitters
One of the possible explanations for Fulmer’s recent struggles could be his platoon splits. After holding left-handed hitters in check over the past two years, Fulmer is allowing them to hit .262/.339/.495 this season, with 14 extra-base hits in 115 plate appearances. The Twins haven’t exactly been lethal against right-handed pitching this year, but do boast a fair number of left-handed hitters in their everyday lineup. They will miss Joe Mauer and Jason Castro against Fulmer — Mauer is hitting .375 in few plate appearances — but could still make life difficult for Fulmer if he doesn’t sort out his platoon issues.
Fulmer has a strong outing and the Tigers avoid the sweep.