Michael Fulmer was not going to be ready for the start of the 2020 baseball season in April. But when the start of the season was pushed back into late July, Fulmer was able to report with his team mates to spring training 2.0 and begin the season in the Tigers’ starting rotation. He made ten starts, being limited to no more than three innings in any of them, for a total of 27 innings for the season.
After missing the entire 2019 season due to Tommy John surgery, Fulmer had to pitch his way back into shape in 2020. Success would be measured by whether he could endure the season, moreso than whether he limited opposing hitters. And make no mistake, he was hit very hard- to the tune of a .366 opposing batting average and 2.60 home runs per nine innings. He was able to strike out 6.5 batters per nine frames, never going more than twice through the batting order.
Fulmer is now a few seasons removed from a rookie year where he was the league’s rookie pitcher of the year, with a 3.06 ERA in 24 starts. In that season, he held opposing hitters to less than one home run per nine frames, while striking out 7.5 hitters per nine innings.
He followed up that up in 2017 with a 3.83 ERA in 25 starts, and another in 2018 with a 4.69 ERA in 24 starts before going on the injured list with the elbow problem that led to his surgery. In his last healthy season, his HR/9 jumped from 0.71 to 1.29. Not the end of the world, but right in sync with his elevated earned run average, and with the homeritis disease that spread like wildfire through the Tigers’ pitching staff.
Fulmer has never been a big strikeout pitcher, whiffing 6.5 to 7.5 batters per nine innings each season, including in 2020. His four seam fastball clocked in at an average of 93.5 mph last season, which is below his 95.9 mph career average. His off speed offerings were similarly a couple mph slower. This is understandable in his first year back from surgery.
He enters the 2020- 21 off season eligible for his third of four seasons of arbitration. He earned a modest $2.8 million in 2020, knowing that he would be rehabbing after missing the entire season the previous year. He should be in for a modest raise in 2021, as he’s projected to get $2.9 to $3.2 million.
Fulmer is part of a graduating class along with Matt Boyd and Buck Farmer who will be eligible for free agency after the 2022 season. There shouldn’t be any question about tendering him a contract, as his proven upside is much much more valuable than the salary he will receive.
Some may bemoan the fact that he was not traded before he injured his elbow, while his value was much higher. But he may yet regain all of that value and then some. The key is that he can build strength and get stretched out while regaining the level of performance that he demonstrated before surgery. Then, the conversation will be whether the Tigers should extend him before he becomes a free agent. We’re not there yet.