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Tigers vs. Royals Preview: Let’s get excited about Michael Fulmer again

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What could go wrong?

MLB: Chicago White Sox at Detroit Tigers Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

We were understandably excited when Michael Fulmer came off the disabled list last Friday, but expectations for his first start in over a month were relatively subdued. A pitch count was one reason — Fulmer threw just 77 pitches against the White Sox five days ago — but his up-and-down 2018 season didn’t help. Between command issues and a relative lack of zip on his off-speed pitches, the Tigers’ ace has scuffled to a pedestrian 4.32 ERA with similar peripherals in 116 23 innings.

Then Fulmer gave up just two hits in 4 23 scoreless frames and got us all excited again.

Fulmer’s fastball velocity was relatively consistent with his early season performance, but he cited some mechanical changes that helped provide a bit more velocity and consistency on his off-speed pitches. He generated 13 swings and misses — against a very whiff-happy team, admittedly — and looked every part of the pitcher that buoyed the Tigers rotation in 2016 and 2017.

Can he keep it going against the Royals on Wednesday?

Detroit Tigers (53-79) at Kansas City Royals (41-91)

Time/Place: 2:15 p.m., Kauffman Stadium
SB Nation site: Royals Review
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: RHP Michael Fulmer (3-9, 4.32 ERA) vs. LHP Danny Duffy (7-11, 4.85 ERA)

Game 133 Pitching Matchup

Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Fulmer 116.2 19.9 8.0 4.18 1.6
Duffy 148.1 20.4 10.0 4.68 1.0

Man, what happened?! Danny Duffy emerged as one of the better young starters in baseball over the past couple years, with a combined 6.1 fWAR in 2016 and 2017. The Royals rewarded him with a five-year, $65 million extension in January 2017, a team-friendly deal designed to keep him in Kansas City through his prime and extend the team’s window of competitiveness.

Somehow, both of those goals went awry. Duffy’s command has evaporated this season, resulting in an ugly 10 percent walk rate reminiscent of his early days in a Royals uniform. His strikeout rate has largely held steady relative to his 2017 production, but his swinging strike rate has dropped to below 10 percent for the first time since 2015.

It hasn’t been a consistent decline, though. Duffy has still put together dominant outings, including a trio of scoreless starts in July. He has limited opponents to one run or fewer in 11 of his 26 starts this season, and has nine outings with seven or more strikeouts.

However, the valleys have been ugly. Duffy has given up five runs or more in 10 starts, including a pair of losses against these Tigers earlier in the year. They roughed him up for seven runs on nine hits at Kauffman Stadium back on July 25; even the active roster, scuffling along as one of the worst offenses in baseball, has produced a career .905 OPS against him in 188 plate appearances.

Key matchup: Victor Martinez vs. Danny Duffy

For all of his struggles at the plate this season, Victor Martinez has continued to hit well against the Royals’ lefthander. Martinez has 18 hits (including three homers) off Duffy in 50 career plate appearances, and is a solid 3-for-6 this season.

Prediction

Fulmer and the Tigers salvage a series split.

Gameday reading