Michael Fulmer returns to the rotation mid-season for the Detroit Tigers. His health still brings a lot of questions to the pitching staff.
The Question: What can be expected of Fulmer after his return from Tommy John Surgery?
Michael Fulmer last pitched for the Tigers in 2018. Among pitchers with at least 200 innings pitched from Fulmer’s debut through the end of the 2017 season, Fulmer’s 6.7 fWAR ranked as the 14th highest. His .83 HR/9 was the third-best in all of MLB, just ahead of Stephen Strasburg.
Fulmer was the 2016 Rookie of the Year and was included on a Cy Young ballot. He looked like the next great Tiger’s ace, if only he could stay healthy. After both an ulnar nerve transposition surgery that ended his 2017 season and a torn meniscus near the end of 2018, Fulmer’s potential to be a front-line starter seemed a lot less likely.
Entering into 2019 Spring Training, Fulmer was pitching with diminished velocity but was throwing without pain in his elbow or his knee. But, just one month later he experienced elbow discomfort during a bullpen session. It was announced that he would need Tommy John surgery. Again, Fulmer was injured. This time he would miss all of 2019 and the first half of the 2020 season.
Looking ahead to his return, what can Tigers’ fans expect?
Now 27 years old, Fulmer should return around the halfway point of the season and hopefully start around 10 games.
Looking at Major League pitchers that have recently returned from Tommy John surgery. Many of them, like Fulmer, saw a rise in their walk rate starting the year of their surgery and not normalizing until the year after their return. Because Fulmer saw his BB/9 rise nearly a full walk-in 2018, we can expect him to hover around three walks for every nine innings he pitches in 2020.
Over his first two seasons, Fulmer was great at limiting the home run ball. But, in 2018, he gave up a career-high 19 in just 132.1 innings. In 2019 there were 671 more home runs than in any other year in the history of the game. If that trend continues, much of Fulmer’s success will depend on how well he can limit the long ball.
Expectations for 2020
Fulmer should not be expected to resume the role of staff ace right away when he returns. The main objective for him this season should be to finish his rehab, make it back to the majors, and stay healthy while his body acclimates to pitching again.
Fulmer will hopefully regain his mid 90’s fastball velocity and get ready for a big 2021 season. With Fulmer leading the way, the Tigers’ 2021 rotation will be among the league’s most exciting.