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Tigers vs. Reds Preview: Michael Fulmer looks to keep rolling in series finale

Fulmer is coming off two strong starts against AL Central opponents. Can he make it a third against an NL Central foe?

MLB: Cleveland Indians at Detroit Tigers Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Things weren’t looking good for Michael Fulmer a couple weeks ago. He was coming off a pedestrian start against the Toronto Blue Jays, having allowed four runs in six innings. It wasn’t an awful outing — though he had one of those a few days earlier against the Angels — but it wasn’t great either. Worse yet, it was something that had been happening far too often; Fulmer’s ERA climbed to 4.72 after the loss to Toronto, his fifth of the season.

Since then, things have turned around considerably. Fulmer has tossed consecutive seven-inning starts against the Cleveland Indians and Minnesota Twins, holding each club to just a single run apiece. While the Tigers only won one of those games, it was a welcome return to form for their ace.

Even better still was Fulmer’s command. After walking 20 batters in his previous 37 13 innings — nearly five batters per nine innings — Fulmer has issued just one walk in his last two starts. He struck out seven Indians hitters in his dominant outing against the Tribe on June 8, and did not walk a batter. While he only struck out four Twins six days ago, he also only issued one walk and limited them to just five hits.

No matter how the Tigers fare the rest of this season — they squandered a chance to return to .500 on Tuesday — getting Fulmer back on track was Priority Number One. He will either be the staff’s ace as they eventually return to contention, or become a valuable trade chip for more prospects.

Let’s hope he continues on this good run of form in Cincinnati on Wednesday.

Detroit Tigers (36-38) at Cincinnati Reds (27-45)

Time/Place: 12:35 p.m., Great American Ball Park
SB Nation site: Red Reporter
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: RHP Michael Fulmer (3-5, 4.13 ERA) vs. RHP Tyler Mahle (5-6, 3.96 ERA)

Game 75 Pitching Matchup

Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Fulmer 80.2 19.7 8.4 4.10 1.1
Mahle 75.0 21.3 8.8 4.74 0.4

Tyler Mahle was a bit of a project when he was drafted out of high school in 2013, but one that seems to be panning out for the Reds. He was more of a touch-and-feel righty during his ascent through the minors. FanGraphs noted that his fastball sat anywhere from 87-92 miles per hour when they ranked him the No. 16 prospect in the Reds’ system prior to the 2017 season. His profile was largely built on excellent command and solid strikeout-to-walk ratios, even if he wasn’t blowing minor league hitters away with heat.

I’m not sure what changed, but something clearly did. Mahle is now averaging 93.2 miles per hour with the heater, and has reached as high as 98 mph this season. He relies heavily on his four-seam fastball, throwing it roughly two-thirds of the time. His preferred secondary pitch is his slider, a mid-80s offering that doesn’t generate many swings and misses. He is throwing his changeup more often this year against both righties and lefties, but left-handed hitters have still teed off on him; they are hitting .273/.382/.540 against him for the year.

Despite the jump in velocity, his ceiling still looks like that of a back-end starter. Reds Minor Leagues echoed this sentiment last fall.

For Tyler Mahle he lives and dies with the fastball. Sometimes that can be to a fault. The right hander throws a lot of fastballs. It’s not Tony Cingrani level, but it’s higher than normal. With all of the different ways he can use his fastball, though, it’s giving hitters different looks despite them falling under the “fastball” category. How his secondary stuff plays against Major Leaguers will be the most interesting part of his future development. As things stand right now, I expect his strikeout rate to decline and his walk rate to increase a little bit from his minor league time. The secondary pitches just aren’t put-away caliber and while he can pound the zone, big leaguers will be able to spoil things that minor leaguers couldn’t.

Key matchup: Reds hitters vs. a hard-throwing, ground ball pitcher

Michael Fulmer’s season-long 46.6 percent ground ball rate is a career-low, but he still profiles as more of a ground ball pitcher than most. His grounder rate is well above his 31.5 percent fly ball rate, and opponents still roll over on a lot of his pitches. This doesn’t bode well for the Reds, who have struggled more often against ground ball pitchers and hard-throwers. They have a .698 OPS against power pitchers this season, according to Baseball Reference, well below their .762 OPS against finesse pitchers. Their .665 OPS against ground ball pitchers is even worse, and includes a brutal .228 batting average. Add in that they struggle more against righties than lefties, and this looks like a good matchup for Fulmer and the Tigers.


Fulmer and the Tigers split the series.

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