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Tigers vs. Rangers Preview: Michael Fulmer is still a mystery

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Fulmer continues to struggle with his command in a rough third MLB season.

MLB: Detroit Tigers at Chicago Cubs Jim Young-USA TODAY Sports

We’ve pronounced Michael Fulmer “back” two or three times already this season. It has made sense every time (we think) because he delivers a start or two that look like the vintage Fulmer. He limited the Minnesota Twins to a run in 5 23 innings back in late May... but gave up five runs in his next start. June was even better, with consecutive seven-inning, one-run efforts. But then he regressed to his previous form, and the Tigers lost his next three starts.

Long story short, the 2018 version of Fulmer is baffling. His command hasn’t quite been there at times, resulting in a career-high walk rate. He already has more starts with three walks or more than he produced in all of 2017, and has gone just three outings without walking a batter. Opponents have teed off on him the third time through the order when he previously dominated in such situations in both 2016 and ‘17.

I honestly don’t know what it is. Fulmer’s velocity is just fine, and there appears to be no sign of injury. Some have questioned if his offseason surgery is playing a role in his struggles, but one would imagine we’d see him improving throughout the year. Instead, he was excellent in April, and has regressed since then.

Of course, some run support might help too. The Tigers haven’t scored five runs in a Fulmer start since mid-May, when they lost to the Seattle Mariners. They have scored six runs for him just twice, once against these same Rangers on May 7. Can the Tigers do it again and deliver a series win?

Texas Rangers (39-51) at Detroit Tigers (40-51)

Time/Place: 1:10 p.m., Comerica Park
SB Nation site: Lone Star Ball
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: RHP Austin Bibens-Dirkx (1-2, 4.40 ERA) vs. RHP Michael Fulmer (3-7, 4.22 ERA)

Game 92 Pitching Matchup

Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Bibens-Dirkx 28.2 16.5 6.3 4.27 0.4
Fulmer 100.1 20.3 7.9 3.99 1.5

Austin Bibens-Dirkx spent a looooong time in the minor leagues. He was originally drafted by the Mariners way back in 2006, and was released less than three years later without getting any higher than A-ball. He bounced around several other organizations, and even spent a season in Independent ball in 2009. After years of slowly working his way up the ladder, he eventually made his major league debut with the Rangers on May 17, 2017, nearly 11 full years after he was drafted. He pitched well enough to stick around — including 4 23 scoreless innings of mop-up duty against the Tigers on May 20 — and earned another contract with the Rangers for 2018. The club has used him as a spot starter throughout the year, shuttling him between Triple-A and the majors as needed. Bibens-Dirkx’s numbers have been okay, but with a few rough outings mixed in.

As you might imagine from a career journeyman, Bibens-Dirkx doesn’t have a high-octane arsenal. His fastball has averaged 89.8 miles per hour this season, with a mid-80s slider and changeup. He uses both of those secondaries, along with a curveball, over 50 percent of the time, and mixes all four pitches whether ahead or behind. His curveball is the go-to out pitch against righties, while lefties get the kitchen sink with two strikes. His batted ball profile is somewhat fly ball heavy, but one with a high hard-hit percentage.

In other words, you’re going to hate it when he throws six scoreless innings.

Key matchup: Fulmer vs. his three-pitch mix

The one theory I have about Fulmer’s struggles is more “wild guess” than anything, but here goes. He has been throwing his slider more often than ever this year, but it has come at the expense of his changeup. He is down to just 13.8 percent usage of the change after sitting closer to 18 percent in each of the past two seasons. The biggest difference has been against right-handed hitters, who have seen the changeup just eight percent of the time this year, compared to nearly 15 percent of the time previously. While both righties and lefties have hit Fulmer harder this year, one wonders if Fulmer will revert to his previous pitch mix now that he has spent a full turn in the rotation with new pitching coach Rick Anderson.

We’ve seen Anderson’s impact elsewhere already. The Tigers are relying on their starters more often now, letting them go deeper into games (though their performance has helped). With former pitching coach Chris Bosio so focused on using the slider — both Fulmer and others saw their slider usage jump this year — we might see a more balanced approach with a new voice in Fulmer’s ear.

Prediction

The Tigers come back late to win their third straight.

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