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30 Players: Tigers' Michael Fulmer Should Avoid Sophomore Slump

By Rich Arleo

CBS Local Sports, in our 30 Players 30 Days spring training feature, profiles one young player from each Major League Baseball team leading up to opening day.

2016 season (Majors): 26 G, 26 GS, 159 IP, 3.06 ERA, 1.12 WHIP, 11W, 132 SO, 42 BB

The Detroit Tigers had a very eventful 2015 Trade Deadline, moving David Price, Yoenis Cespedes and Joakim Soria for a number of top-flight prospects. The Tigers are still expecting more from young arms Daniel Norris and Matt Boyd acquired from the Blue Jays in the Price deal, but the Cespedes trade yielded significant returns in ‘16 when Fulmer put forth a somewhat surprising Rookie of the Year campaign.

Selected in the first round of the ‘11 Draft by the New York Mets out of high school, Fulmer immediately showed off his potential as a 19-year-old with Class A. In his first full pro season, the right-hander struck out 101 and had a 2.74 ERA in 108 1/3 innings over 21 starts. Some bumps in the road followed, including surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his knee in ‘13 (limiting him to nine starts) and a minor offseason elbow surgery after a so-so ‘14 season.

Still with the Mets in Double-A to begin ‘15, Fulmer showed no signs of health issues and got off to a blazing start with a 1.88 ERA in 15 starts for Binghamton. With Fulmer’s draft stock up and a surplus of pitching talent shining as they made a playoff push, the Mets made the move to acquire Cespedes to boost their offense at the Deadline and shipped Fulmer to Detroit. He finished the year strong at Double-A Erie and joined the TIgers for Spring Training last year.

Fulmer began the season with Triple-A Toledo, got the call up to Detroit in April and never looked back. After building up arm strength and adjusting to the Majors in his first few starts, Fulmer had his first breakout start on May 21 when he struck out 11 Tampa Bay Rays in seven innings of one-run ball. That start began a tear that lasted the remainder of the season. He finished with a 2.58 ERA and 1.00 WHIP the rest of the way, holding hitters to a .211 batting average in 22 starts. While the award-winning season was a bit of a surprise, it wasn’t a shock given his pedigree, and the Tigers and Fulmer hope that it was only the beginning.

Fulmer credits the development of his changeup for turning the corner in May last year, and a deeper dive into his stats shows it became a huge weapon around the time he really started his run. According to PITCHf/x data on Fangraphs, Fulmer threw the changeup 19% of the time beginning with that first great start against the Rays. During the stretch, it clocked in around nine MPH slower than his fastball (86 to 95) and was his second most valuable pitch (plus-11 rating). In his four starts before that, the changeup was rated minus-0.7 and was thrown just 9% of the time.

An Expected Fielding Independent Pitching (xFIP) of 3.95 indicates some slight regression is a possibility, and Fulmer would like to see that total of 16 home runs allowed shrink this year. The righty sprained his ankle early this spring, but it doesn’t appear too serious. He returned from the injury on March 12 against his former team and struck out four Mets while allowing two runs on three hits in 2 1/3 innings.

Fulmer’s injury history isn’t nearly as lengthy as many young pitchers so there’s no reason to have a heightened level of concern on that front. With the changeup in his arsenal for an entire season, a dramatic sophomore slide doesn’t seem to likely for Fulmer in ‘17.

Rich Arleo is a freelance sports writer and editor who covers Major League Baseball and fantasy sports. You can follow him on Twitter, @Rarleo.

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