Detroit Tigers year in review: Michael Fulmer with a comeback campaign

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - OCTOBER 03: Michael Fulmer #32 of the Detroit Tigers throws a pitch against the Chicago White Sox at Guaranteed Rate Field on October 03, 2021 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images)
CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - OCTOBER 03: Michael Fulmer #32 of the Detroit Tigers throws a pitch against the Chicago White Sox at Guaranteed Rate Field on October 03, 2021 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images) /
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Detroit Tigers right-handed pitcher Michael Fulmer solidified himself as a legitimate late-inning option for the Detroit Tigers last season

I had predicted in our piece on the 2021 Detroit Tigers season that the bullpen would be “sneaky good,” and that Michael Fulmer would be a big part of their improvement as a unit. That prediction came to fruition and Michael Fulmer established himself as a bullpen ace this season (never mind my Jeimer Candelario “hot take” trade idea).

I also wrote about Michael Fulmer’s new and improved curveball, and about how he may be back as a starter as early as 2022 thanks to that added fourth pitch. Let’s lean into Michael Fulmer’s past, his 2021 season, and that starter possibility next year:

Who is Michael Fulmer?

Michael Fulmer was a first-round pick (44th overall) by the New York Mets in the 2011 MLB Draft out of his high school in Oklahoma. Fulmer put up some solid numbers across the minors and broke out in 2015; a year in which he’d make 15 starts for the Binghampton Rumble Ponies (Mets’ AA affiliate) and churn a 1.88 ERA while striking out 83 in 86 innings.

Fulmer was then dealt to the Detroit Tigers along with Luis Cessa in exchange for Yoenis Cespedes as part of then-GM Dave Dombrowski’s famous “re-tool” tag. Fulmer did more of the same for the Erie Seawolves and made just three starts in Toledo before getting the call to the big leagues in 2016. Over those 26 starts, Fulmer pitched to a 3.06 ERA while striking out 132 in 159 innings; good for a 5.4 bWAR, which landed him an AL Rookie of the Year Award and 10th on the AL Cy Young ballot.

Fulmer was an all-star in 2017 as part of a 3.5-win campaign while allowing a league-low 0.7 HR per nine innings pitched. After a somewhat pedestrian 2018 that was shortened by right knee surgery, Fulmer lost his entire 2019 season to Tommy John Surgery.

Michael Fulmer in 2021

It is a comeback of sorts; Fulmer had made 10 starts in 2020 but threw just 27.2 innings; giving up 45 hits and supplying an 8.78 ERA. In a bullpen transition, velocity is back and Fulmer was nasty; supplying nearly 2-WAR as a relief pitcher.

Fulmer slowly began to regain his changeup out of the bullpen and then began to re-introduce his curveball; a pitch he had been working on before his Tommy John Surgery. Pitchers with a four-pitch mix out of the bullpen are incredibly rare, but Fulmer showed prowess with his arsenal in a fireman role.

He was perhaps the lieutenant of that fireman squad; a corps of Fulmer, Funkhouser, Cisnero, and Soto which allowed manager AJ Hinch to shorten the leash on his starters. Especially someone like Fulmer, who has no problem getting more than three outs. 15 of Fulmer’s 52 appearances were multi-inning efforts.

Michael Fulmer’s Stats

Michael Fulmer’s Future

Manager AJ Hinch mentioned in his introductory press conference that if the organization can get the pitching right, they have a shot to compete. Michael Fulmer was certainly a part of that plan and came through in 2021; supplying a bullpen arm worthy of high-leverage situations throughout the season.

The conundrum becomes: if Fulmer now has a legitimate four-pitch mix if his services might be best-served in a starting rotation. Fulmer admitted those conversations have been happening and mentioned he does have an open mind about his role moving forward.

These playoffs have shown how important reliable bullpen pieces are–his value should not be understated coming out of the bullpen. At the same time, Fulmer has loads of experience starting, and with injuries to Matthew Boyd and Spencer Turnbull that will pour into next season, Fulmer in the rotation may only require the club to get one arm on the open market and some depth; with the hope that someone like Alex Lange could fill in Fulmer’s spot in the pen come 2022.

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