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Detroit at Houston Preview: Welcome back to the rotation, Michael Fulmer

The former Rookie of the Year’s bullpen stint was short-lived.

MLB: APR 09 Tigers at Indians Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Monday night my wife asked me if A.J. Hinch would have an advantage over his old team because he knows all of the players. While I told her I doubt that would make much of a difference, it sure seems like the Detroit Tigers know exactly how to handle the Astros, winning the first two games in Houston by a combined 10 runs. Maybe I should have believed.

Detroit goes for the sweep on Wednesday by turning to Michael Fulmer, a pitcher who has been on a bit of a wild ride over the course of the last few years. After a strong start to his career, including the 2016 AL Rookie of the Year award, the righthander missed all of 2019 due to Tommy John surgery and had a terrible 2020 (8.78 ERA over 10 starts).

As a result, Fulmer was moved to the bullpen to start 2021, where some thought — and hoped — that a change in role could help him regain some effectiveness. Pitching well enough to move back into the rotation was always a possibility, but not necessarily a given. However, the injury to Julio Teheran provided the need for another starter, and Hinch decided to give Fulmer a shot.

The 2021 season is still very young, but Fulmer has looked a bit more like his old self so far. He has given up a pair of homers in seven innings this year, but he has also tallied 10 strikeouts on the season and was solid in four innings against Cleveland as Hinch stretched him out for tonight’s start. Fulmer has had knee problems in the past as well, so he will likely not be pushed too hard, but a positive outing could go a long way for both Detroit and its former top asset.

Detroit Tigers (5-6) at Houston Astros (6-5)

Time/Place: 7:10 p.m., Minute Maid Park
SB Nation site: The Crawfish Boxes
Media: Bally Sports Detroit, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: RHP Michael Fulmer (0-0, 2.57 ERA) vs. LHP Lance McCullers Jr. (1-0, 1.80 ERA)

Game 12 Pitching Matchup

Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Fulmer 7.0 40.0 0.0 4.00 0.1
McCullers 10.0 31.7 14.6 3.95 0.1

On the other side of the pitching matchup is Lance McCullers, who like Fulmer missed 2019 to Tommy John surgery. His 2020 was a little different, though, featuring a 3.92 ERA and 3.70 FIP over 11 starts. This is fairly on brand for McCullers; just once in his five major league seasons has he posted an ERA over 4.00, and he is already off to an impressive start this year, giving up just two hits and a lone earned run in each of his five-inning outings.

Despite his impressive run prevention numbers, McCullers has seen his strikeout rate fall over the past few years, even before his surgery. However, two starts into the new season have arrows pointing up, with a 31.7 strikeout rate and a 34.4 percent CSW rate both higher than they have ever been before. McCullers has added a good slider to his repertoire this season, and that pitch has the whiffs coming in bunches again. Even with a little regression, it looks like the 27-year-old is not only completely recovered, but possibly improving his already stellar game.

Key matchup: Michael Fulmer vs. the long ball

Like some other Tigers starters, Fulmer has been really hurt by homers. In 2020 he featured a 22.2 percent home run to fly ball rate, which is not surprising given an increase in both fly ball percentage and barrel percentage. Coming off of an injury, this can be excused, but if the trend continues in 2021 he will have a rough time.

Through his first three outings this has unfortunately been the case, though he has not yet paid the price. Small sample size caveats aside, his fly ball rate sits at 60 percent (!!) right now, and his barrel rate is up to 13.3 percent as well. These numbers will subside, but it remains to be seen if they will return to 2020 levels, or if he can show any resemblance to his pre-surgery self. The reality is likely somewhere in between, but the stakes are high for Fulmer as he gets another shot at starting.