What Can We Expect From Michael Fulmer Going Forward?
The Mets acquired Yoenis Cespedes, a slugger who helped them reach their first World Series since 2000. In return, the Tigers received two starting pitchers: Luis Cessa -- who was subsequently traded to the New York Yankees -- and Michael Fulmer, who ended up being an excellent addition for the Tigers.
In his debut season a year ago, Fulmer won the Rookie of the Year award, and he looks like a potential cornerstone of the Tigers' rotation for years to come.
How good was Fulmer in 2016, and what kind of pitcher might he be in the future? Let's take a look.
His 2016 Campaign
At first glance, Fulmer had an excellent 2016 season. He had a win-loss record of 11-7 with a 3.06 ERA -- good for a 135 ERA+ (he was above the league average by 35%) -- 20.4% strikeout rate and 6.5% walk rate. All of those numbers look very impressive, especially for a rookie.
He did this with a small array of pitches, and he used them nearly interchangeably, which we can see by looking at his pitch usage.
|Four-Seam Fastball||Two-Seam Fastball||Slider||Changeup|
According to PITCHf/x, Fulmer threw all four -- if you count his fastballs as two separate pitches -- with regularity. That can make things difficult on a hitter. Even though Fulmer does not have a plethora of pitches in his back pocket, he kept hitters off balance, and it worked to his advantage.
A Bit of a Mirage
However, there are some concerns for Fulmer going forward.
While Fulmer's sparkling 3.06 ERA was good for 12th-best among all pitchers -- higher than the likes of Jake Arrieta and Corey Kluber and right behind teammate Justin Verlander -- some of his underlying numbers are causes of concern.
His 3.76 FIP, 3.95 xFIP and 4.03 SIERA all show that he pitched over his head a little bit. While his FIP and xFIP were still above average -- his 88 FIP- and 93 xFIP- were still 12 and seven points better than the average, respectively -- they are not as impressive as his ERA.
His FIP was 23rd highest among all pitchers while his xFIP ranked 36th, and his SIERA sat 38th. While he wasn't bad by any means, his advanced statistics are certainly not in the same class as ERA, and it is more likely his true talent level is closer to his FIP, xFIP and SIERA than his ERA.
Maybe the biggest red flag for Fulmer is his second-half performance.
After an unbelievable first half, one in which he posted a 2.11 ERA, 3.50 FIP and 3.89 xFIP with a 23.2% strikeout rate and 8.7% walk rate in 76 2/3 innings pitched, he crashed hard in the second half.
Over 82 1/3 second-half innings, he posted a 3.94 ERA with an identical 4.00 FIP and 4.00 xFIP. His strikeout rate fell to 17.9%, and he struggled with men on base as his strand rate dropped nearly 13 percentage points to 72.9%. His only improvement over the second half came in his walk rate, which dipped to 4.5%.
While his ERA fluctuated wildly -- 2.11 to 3.94 -- his xFIP was nearly the same in both halves. He's more likely to repeat that going forward than anything to do with his ERA.
Also, his strand rate in the first half was incredibly and unsustainably high. His 85.4% strand rate would have been the highest in the MLB and would have been 12.5% higher than the league average. It's possible to buck the odds and post a number like that over one season, but it's very unlikely to keep getting that lucky year after year.
There are also some concerns with Fulmer in terms of his durability and injury history. In his professional career, he has only thrown 100 or more innings three times: once in 2012 with the Mets in Single-A, once in 2015 with the Mets and Tigers in Double-A, and this past season, splitting time between Triple-A and the major leagues.
The reason behind this is due to having three surgeries in the span of two seasons -- two knee surgeries and one elbow surgery. Some of the reason for the injuries may revolve around his violent throwing motion.
All pitchers are an injury risk, but as you can see in the GIF above, Fulmer has a unique motion that may be putting a lot of stress on the rest of his body. With the unnatural pressure pitching puts on the arm and elbow, even with the cleanest mechanics, a rather violent motion is somewhat concerning. Of course, it is possible that he can avoid any future problems. After all, Chris Sale looks like an injury waiting to happen on every pitch he throws, and he has been a workhorse in his career.
Overall, Michael Fulmer had a 2016 season plenty of rookies -- or veterans, for that matter -- would love to have.
While he's not a top-12 pitcher like his ERA would have you believe, his advanced metrics show that he should have another productive year in 2017, even if he does not reach the heights from his rookie campaign.