Given the Tigers recent run of success, the playoffs are very much on the table. But for that happy reason, we’re forced to confront something quite challenging: Michael Fulmer’s workload. If the Tigers were bad, the decision would be easy and the club would use Fulmer until he was out of gas and then shut him down for the year. The issue the Tigers face is that club would generally prefer to save some of his innings/pitches for extremely high importance games in October if at all possible. It’s the execution of that which gets tricky.
We have to start with the caveat that we don’t know (neither do the Tigers) how usage impacts injury probability. There’s no magic number or formula that can give us an answer regarding the total workload he can endure safely. He’s thrown 119.1 innings so far and his career max is 124.2. We can probably assume 160 is where the Tigers would go if there were no playoff implications. I think it’s also probably safe to say they won’t let him go past 180 regardless. Are either of those numbers the right numbers? We have no idea. Maybe he can handle 240, but this is plan for using his innings not challenging the nature of the limit.
If we’re looking at 170 innings that means we have 45 more, give or take. If the Tigers stay 100% on turn, there are 11 Fulmer start days left. There are, however, five off days. Pitching at 6 IP per start, that gives us about 8 starts if used normally. We also have to account for the wild card game, and potentially three postseason series. Ideally, we want 15-16 starts from Fulmer. If we want to use him like a normal starter we have to find a place the Tigers can cut out 7-8 starts. Let’s talk options.
Option 1: Just Get There
The most straightforward option is to simply keep Fulmer on turn and pitch him until you don’t want to add any more to his workload. This is easy to manage and makes sense if you don’t think there is a way to get him to the playoff rotation anyway. A win in August is the same as one in September and there’s no reason to mess with Fulmer’s rhythm if you can’t squeeze postseason innings out. Give him 8 more starts and then shut him down when you need to.
Option 2: Give Yourself Options
The reason this decision is so tough is because you don’t know how much Fulmer you actually need. If the other starters are going to be amazing (or terrible) that influences things. If you need all eight Fulmer starts to get to the postseason, you should make sure you get eight Fulmer starts. If you only need five, you want to use five. But also, if you know that you won’t make it even if you max him out, you also don’t want to over-work him. It’s tough!
Option 2 accounts for this and recognizes the Tigers can’t possibly get 11 more starts from Fulmer without sending him north of 180. But they also don’t know if they need four or seven. For this reason, the Tigers should skip Fulmer a couple times as soon as possible. If you skip him now, you have the option to unleash him over the last several starts of the season OR you can skip him again in late September if you don’t need him then to keep him in the October conversation.
Option 3: Plan for October
If the Tigers feel confident in their ability to make it to the postseason, then it makes sense for them to want Fulmer available in the big moments. This plan requires you to save ~20 innings for October, meaning you have 25 more the rest of the way. Spread out five, 5 IP starts and call it good.
Option 4: Bullpen
If Fulmer has about 45 innings left, it might just make sense to move him to late relief. Instead of asking for eight more starts, ask him for 15-20 appearances over the final 55ish games. Let him get used to two innings appearances and deploy him to back up someone like Boyd, Sanchez, or Norris. You aren’t going to get the same value, but the ability to put him into leverage moments might make up some of those lost innings in the rotation. That will save you relief innings for October and give you four awesome relievers to back up your starters.
Option 5: Shorten His Outings
Instead of thinking of Fulmer as a full starter or full reliever, another option the Tigers have is to keep him relatively on turn, but back off his workload in each start. If you use an off day here and there and wind up using him for nine starts down the stretch, you can let him go something like 3-3-3-4-4-4-5-5-6. That’s 37 innings, giving you at least one full playoff start if you need it or three relief appearances. That approach also allows you to leave him in a little longer or pull him sooner if the game allows, so if it’s 8-0 you can take him out and save the arm.
Given that we don’t know exactly where to stop him or exactly how much the Tigers will need him, I think a hybrid of Option 2 and Option 5. You know that Fulmer can’t give you 11 more full starters, so you have to skip him at some point during the regular season no matter what. The club should skip him around the next off day and pull him early over the next couple starts. It’s great that he can give you 7-8 innings, but four is enough the next couple times through. If it looks like they’re going to be a tight race from that point on, you take the gloves back off and just pitch him until he’s done. If the Tigers look like they’re going to make the postseason either way, then you can skip another start and pull him early a few more times to bank some innings.
We obviously can’t say where the safe limit is, but if we assume the Tigers have some workload cap in mind, they need to start massaging the schedule now so that they have options later on. Turning him into a reliever might throw him off his game, so you want to save that until the last possible moment. Buy yourself time now and then adapt later.