Where Are Fulmer’s Strikeouts?

Tigers fans find themselves in one of those periods where we’re all starting to think of Michael Fulmer as the Tigers ace, but he hasn’t really been around long enough to have certainly wrestled that title from Justin Verlander. The pitchers appear to be trending in opposite directions, but over the last calendar year they are essentially dead even in fWAR. If you had to bet on the next 365 days, Fulmer probably comes out ahead, but we haven’t lived in this world long enough to be sure. That’s a long and convoluted way of saying Fulmer is emerging as one of the best pitchers in the game — certainly one of the best young pitchers in the game.

Yet despite Fulmer’s success and obvious talent, he doesn’t really collect strikeouts the way you might expect an ace-level pitcher to do so. Since the start of 2016 (min. 200 IP), Fulmer ranks 54th out of 88 in strikeout rate (19.7%).

This hasn’t impeded Fulmer’s success. On this site we talk a lot about fielding independent numbers which rely on strikeouts as one of the main inputs, but Fulmer is 8th in FIP- (81)over the same period. In other words, this isn’t a routine sabermetric story of a guy whose ERA is much better than his FIP and we’re predicting regression. Yes, Fulmer’s ERA- (72) is better than his FIP-, but both metrics suggest he’s pitched extremely well over the last two years. His walk rate (6.2%) is 21st out of 88 and his home run rate (0.74 HR/9) is second best. His .272 BABIP is also among the 20 lowest in the sample.

If you just look at his numbers, you would think he’s a command and control guy who works away from the barrel, getting weak ground balls and harmless fly outs. In other words, his stats suggest something like Kyle Hendricks. Crafty.

But, well:

Fulmer’s average fastball velocity during his career has been 95.9 mph. He also has two other very good pitches, not to mention the emergence of a curveball during recent starts. Yet he gets an ordinary amount of swings on pitches outside the zone and is middle of the pack in terms of contact rate allowed. He’s sort of developed a Gerrit Cole or Marcus Stroman vibe. He gets good results with good stuff, but doesn’t generate a lot of swings and misses or strikeouts. Stroman’s trick is a huge number of ground balls, but Cole might be a better comp. Cole throws hard, has other pitches, and (until this year) has succeeded in large part due to home run prevention.

You can take the Cole comparison as a positive or a negative depending on your perspective. Prior to this year, it would be a very flattering situation, but this year provides solid evidence that if you don’t get a ton of strikeouts, your fortune can turn on a dime if all of a sudden your home run skill vanishes.

Fulmer gets quite a few pop ups and generally weaker contact than average, but there’s some reason to worry that there is nowhere to go but down if he doesn’t add more strikeouts to the mix. I don’t say that to suggest his basic approach is unsustainable, just that given the amount of balls he allows to be put in play, if batters start squaring them up even a little better, he’s going to start allowing a lot more runs.

Truth be told, my suspicion is that this approach is largely a conscious one by Fulmer. He’s generally been efficient with his pitches, averaging more than six innings per start during his first season and a half of work. This is likely due to his willingness to be in the strikezone rather than nibbling around the edges. For example, when Fulmer gets to an 0-2 count this year, he ends up getting a strikeout about 48% of the time, which is average give or take. But his overall wOBA allowed after getting to an 0-2 count is well above average. Based on his results, we know he’s not letting hitters back into plate appearances, he’s just choosing to try to end them a different way.

And that’s totally fine as long as it’s working. There’s no inherent reason to chase strikeouts. But strikeouts after safer than balls in play and there is a breakeven point for ever pitcher between chasing whiffs and chasing weak contact. Fulmer is much closer to the weak contact side than other pitches, especially given his raw stuff. Hitters will eventually make some adjustments against him and he will need to counter those adjustments with a strikeout-friendly approach. My worry is that he may not have spent enough time honing that skill and there will be a rougher adjustment period. This is essentially equivalent to a player whose fastball is too good for anyone in the minors and so he never works on his breaking ball until he needs it in the show.

I don’t doubt Fulmer’s ability to handle such an adjustment at all, but it might be the kind of thing the Tigers should focus on as the game get meaningless down the stretch and they begin to plan for the long run. Fulmer is a tremendous arm and making sure he has all the tools he needs is one of the most important things the team will do during the rebuilding phase.

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