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Tigers at Indians Preview: Michael Fulmer is struggling to readjust to MLB

Fulmer’s ineffectiveness and the bullpen’s recent struggles will need to end if the Tigers have any hope of winning tonight’s game.

MLB: Cleveland Indians at Detroit Tigers Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

The last week or so of Tigers baseball has been an excellent reminder of why Detroit found themselves atop the draft order in June: they’re a very bad baseball team. It’s something we knew all along but probably just didn’t want to admit to ourselves when the season began on a high note. After all, who likes be the rain on socially distanced parades? The losing streak Detroit is currently mired in just serves as a rude reminder of reality, and the fact that it’s lasted nine games merely adds a little salt in the wound.

The competition isn’t getting any softer as the Tigers move from Chicago and the white-hot White Sox (say that ten times) and back to Cleveland to face the Indians. A series win may be out of reach in this bitter rivalry, but even a solitary win would mean a lot to this team and fan base, who have endured a huge number of losses in the recent weeks. The man being sent to do that job is Michael Fulmer.

Detroit Tigers (9-14) at Cleveland Indians (16-9)

Time/Place: 7:10 pm ET, Progressive Field
SB Nation site: Let’s Go Tribe
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Probables: RHP Michael Fulmer (0-0, 7.56 ERA) vs. RHP Adam Plutko (1-1, 3.95 ERA)

Game 24 Pitching Matchup

Pitcher IP K% BB% HR/9 FIP fWAR
Pitcher IP K% BB% HR/9 FIP fWAR
Fulmer 8.1 14.6 9.8 5.4 10.97 -0.4
Plutko 13.2 14.5 1.8 1.32 4.12 0.3

To say his season has gotten off to a rocky start would be sugarcoating the situation. Among all 622 players who have taken the mound in 2020, only ten have been worth less fWAR and only 45 have a worse FIP than Fulmer. That shouldn’t take many buy surprise; coming back from Tommy John surgery, it was expected that he’d face some adversity. Even at his healthiest, Fulmer’s command was not extraordinary, and the feel to pitch with command is often the final attribute a pitcher regains after undergoing the procedure.

Even so, it’s been hard to watch. He’s lost about an inch of vertical moment off his four seam fastball and his sinker from the 2018 season. His slider has also suffered, and is averaging approximately two inches less horizontal movement than in 2018. The sample size is small, but the results have been catastrophic — a huge jump in the number of home runs and walks he’s allowed and a ballooning ERA and FIP.

The data is grim, but it’s rare that a pitcher comes off a surgery this much worse for wear. It’s a slow and frustrating process to ease a player back into action, especially this year, without the ability to rehab in real games with a minor league affiliate. The Michael Fulmer with three plus pitches and enough command to make them click is still buried somewhere in there, and it’s unlikely that we’ve seen the last of him.

The Tigers’ offense, though, is less likely to spring to life, especially against an opponent as pitching-reliant as Cleveland. Say what you will about their lackluster offense or their sometimes confusing trade logic, the Indians have become the gold standard of pitching development.

The man they’ll be facing down in tonight’s game is Adam Plutko. The pitcher had some stern words for teammates Mike Clevenger and Zach Plesac, saying the pair violated their trust and put the entire team in jeopardy when they broke protocol and left the team hotel in Chicago. Despite publicly stating that their misbehavior was deplorable, it wasn’t all bad news for Plutko when Clevenger and Plesac were demoted to the alternate training site. Plutko had lost the battle for the fifth starter’s job to Plesac after Summer Camp and wound up with a clear path to more playing time in the wake of his breach of conduct.

In his 13.2 innings pitched, Plutko has been reasonably effective so far this season. He’s cracked down on walks, but hasn’t struck out an exorbitant number of hitters either. Being a contact pitcher, he may offer the opportunity for Tigers hitters to finally string together a winning offensive effort.

Key Matchup: Detroit’s bullpen vs. overuse

Tasked with a much heavier workload than in a normal season due to the injuries and ineffectiveness suffered by the rotation, the Tigers’ bullpen did an admirable job at first. Their effectiveness is waning as the burden of so many innings is piling up and the unit is staring into the face of another long night. Fulmer has been used exclusively in shortened outings as he gets back into the swing of things and they’ll likely be called upon in the third or fourth inning.

If the Tigers are going to finally topple the Indians’ reign of terror and put an end to the current losing streak in tonight’s game, everything will need to go smoothly. However, because they’ll be on the mound for most of the night, the performance of the bullpen will be key.

Prediction: It’s hard to predict anything but a loss at this point, but the losing has to end at some point and Plutko isn’t one of the Indians’ most formidable pitchers, so now’s as good a time as any to pull out a win. Think happy thoughts!