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Tigers vs. Cubs Preview: Don’t worry, Michael Fulmer is back on track

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Fulmer will face another struggling starter in Chicago’s Kyle Hendricks.

MLB: Detroit Tigers at Cincinnati Reds David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

Maybe it’s just me, but it doesn’t quite feel like Michael Fulmer is back to being Michael Fulmer. The Tigers’ ace had a 4.72 ERA through his first 12 starts this year, in large part thanks to a disastrous May where he posted a 6.32 ERA with 17 walks in 31 13 innings. June looked like it would be more of the same when he started the month with a six-inning, four-run outing against the Toronto Blue Jays. He walked three more batters, bringing his season-long walk total to 27 free passes. By comparison, he walked 40 batters in 2017.

But if the last four starts are any indication, Fulmer is back. He has a 2.93 ERA in those outings, and has cut his season-long ERA by over half a run. He is striking out hitters at a healthy clip, with 25 punchouts in 27 23 innings, and has logged at least six innings in three of those four starts. He has allowed two home runs — both in Cincinnati’s tiny home ballpark — and has given up just 24 hits in total. Most importantly, his command is back; Fulmer has just three walks in his last four starts.

Unfortunately, those outings haven’t translated to wins yet. Fulmer is still getting zero run support from the Tigers offense, and received just nine runs total in those last four starts. Only two AL starters have received less run support.

Can the Tigers offense get their act together to support Fulmer on Tuesday?

Detroit Tigers (38-48) at Chicago Cubs (47-35)

Time/Place: 2:20 p.m., Wrigley Field
SB Nation site: Bleed Cubbie Blue
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB Network, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: RHP Michael Fulmer (3-7, 4.20 ERA) vs. RHP Kyle Hendricks (5-8, 4.21 ERA)

Game 87 Pitching Matchup

Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Fulmer 94.1 20.4 7.7 4.04 1.4
Hendricks 92.0 18.3 7.6 4.89 0.3

Fulmer isn’t the only struggling young starter in this matchup. Kyle Hendricks, the 2016 NL ERA champion and key cog in the Cubs machine, hasn’t been the same pitcher in 2018. His 4.21 ERA is over a full run higher than what he has posted in the past couple seasons, and advanced metrics look even worse.

Unlike Fulmer, this is all a recent development for Hendricks. He had a 3.19 ERA through April and May, with a 3.71 strikeout-to-walk ratio that was reminiscent of his 2016 season, when he finished third in NL Cy Young voting. His home run rate was a little higher than normal, resulting in a 4.40 FIP, but Hendricks’ ERA outperformed that metric by roughly a full run in both ‘16 and ‘17. In other words, it was business as usual.

Then June came. Like Fulmer, Hendricks saw his normally excellent command erode. He issued 15 walks in 24 13 innings, and struck out just 18 hitters in that span. He also gave up a 7.03 ERA and .833 OPS in his five June starts, including five more home runs. That ballooned his ERA by over a full run, as well as a big jump in FIP.

Fortunately for Hendricks and the Cubs, there doesn’t seem to be anything wrong physically. His velocity, while not a key to his success, hasn’t dipped at all; if anything, it’s slightly higher this year than in 2017. His pitch mix hasn’t varied much, outside of an increased focus on his four-seam fastball relative to the two-seamer. That trend might be part of the problem — his sinker is a ground-ball machine while the four-seamer is not — but it doesn’t explain how a pitcher with a career 6.2 percent walk rate has lost his command so suddenly. Given the Tigers’ struggles at the plate, including one of the worst walk rates in baseball, I think he will start to right the ship today.

The last time the Tigers visited Wrigley Field, this happened

We only have two days to milk this, it’s going in every article.

Key matchup: Fulmer vs. pounding the strike zone

As mentioned earlier, Fulmer’s command has been much better in his past four starts. He still has the highest walk rate of his career over the course of the entire season, but has walked just three of 109 batters faced in those four outings. He will need to be on his game again on Tuesday against a patient Cubs lineup. They have the fifth-highest walk rate in the major leagues, and have a 107 wRC+ as a club. They are even better at home, with a 113 wRC+ that ranks fourth among MLB teams.

But he can’t get too aggressive, as the Cubs are fine with jumping on the first pitch of an at-bat. They see just 3.81 pitches per plate appearance, the sixth-fewest in the majors.

Prediction

Michael Fulmer hits his first career home run.

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