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Tigers vs. Blue Jays Preview: Struggling Michael Fulmer tries to finish off sweep for Detroit

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Fulmer hasn’t been at his best lately, but neither has Toronto’s Aaron Sanchez.

MLB: Detroit Tigers at Minnesota Twins Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

This matchup would have been great in 2016, huh? Toronto’s Aaron Sanchez looked like the next big thing two years ago, storming his way to an ERA title in his first full season in the Jays’ rotation. He posted a 3.00 ERA in 30 starts, made the All-Star team, and finished seventh in the AL Cy Young voting. We all know what Michael Fulmer was able to do. He finished just behind Sanchez in both the ERA race and Cy Young voting, but took home AL Rookie of the Year honors ahead of New York’s Gary Sanchez.

This year hasn’t gone so well for either starter. Fulmer started out hot, but gave up 22 runs in 31 13 May innings, ballooning his ERA by nearly two full runs. He has upped his strikeout rate after more concerns about that particular statistic, but has seen his command suffer at the same time (more on that in a bit). Sanchez battled blister issues throughout 2017, and totaled just 36 innings in eight starts after his stellar 2016 campaign. He has been heathy so far in 2018, but has also struggled with his command and is allowing a 4.77 ERA.

Despite their recent struggles, both of these starters are capable of twirling a gem anytime they take the mound. With a pair of lackluster offenses across from them, could we see the pitcher’s duel we deserved in 2016 on Sunday?

Toronto Blue Jays (25-33) at Detroit Tigers (28-30)

Time/Place: 1:10 p.m., Comerica Park
SB Nation site: Bluebird Banter
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: RHP Aaron Sanchez (2-5, 4.77 ERA) vs. RHP Michael Fulmer (2-4, 4.60 ERA)

Game 59 Pitching Matchup

Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Sanchez 60.1 16.7 12.7 5.14 0.1
Fulmer 60.2 20.1 9.3 4.51 0.5

Overall, Sanchez’s numbers could arguably be seen as a blip on the radar. He had a more respectable 4.07 ERA before his last start, a dud against the Red Sox in Boston, and he was consistently pitching six innings or more in April. The walks are an issue, but as we’re seeing with Fulmer, sometimes guys just go through rough patches.

On the other hand, Sanchez’s velocity has dipped by over a full mile per hour from 2016-17. While he will eventually suffer age-related dips in velocity, Sanchez is still only 25. His average fastball velo has gone from 95.4 miles per hour last year to just 94.3 mph this season. Opponents are hitting .302 against his four-seam fastball, a pitch he throws 24 percent of the time, and slugging .479 against his two-seamer, one he throws at a 40 percent clip.

Like Fulmer, Sanchez is also having trouble hitting the strike zone to open at-bats. He is throwing first pitch strikes just 58.9 percent of the time, down a tick from his 2016 season. While this isn’t the only reason he has struggled, falling behind 1-0 more often does not help. Opponents have a .936 OPS against him when they get ahead 1-0, and a .646 OPS when he tallies strike one first.

Key matchup: Michael Fulmer vs. walks

It seems weird, right? Fulmer has displayed excellent command ever since arriving in Detroit. He walked just 5.9 percent of hitters in 164 23 innings last year, and was just a shade over that mark in his rookie season. He limited opponents to one walk or fewer in 14 of his 25 starts last year. That makes 11 of 25 starts with two walks or more, a figure Fulmer has nearly matched already in 2018. Fulmer walked two or more batters in each of his six May starts, and has issued an incredible seven free passes in his last two outings. He is struggling to find the zone for strike one, and isn’t locating his fastball well enough when he does throw a strike. While he is generating more swings and misses than before, opponents are doing more damage when they make contact, resulting in a 6.32 ERA last month.


Sanchez saves the Jays from a series sweep.

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