I remember the fourth week of April 2016 as if it were yesterday. Three rookie A.L. pitchers got their call-ups to the majors and fantasy owners collectively scattered to the waiver wire to put in their claims. “Oh wow! Jose Berrios is up, sweet!” – they exclaimed. “Bob Melvin says Sean Manaea might be up for the long haul!” – they raved. Under the radar of most owners, however, was the real prize of the bunch. Detroit Tigers RHP Michael Fulmer, who’s facial hair would make Grizzy Adams proud, has been utterly insane. The switch from mediocrity to dominance was flipped on May 21st, when he increased his Changeup mix from just 7% in his first four starts to 18% over his last five. The Changeup has lead him to owning a beastly 0.26 ERA over his last 34.1 IP with it’s incredible 40% whiff rate. He’s also gone 28.1 innings since allowing his most recent earned run – just one out away from the Tigers record. Fulmer has been an absolute joy to watch as of late, and his Sunday start on the road in New York was no exception. Let’s break down Michael Fulmer’s June 12th start in the Bronx against the Yankees with 14 HD GIFs.
As always, let’s start with Fulmer’s strikezone plot from the outing:
A couple things about this plot immediately jumped and confirm the notes I took watching Michael’s start. Fulmer had issues commanding his Sinker as it was bringing some ludicrous 2-seam running action that often carried the pitch out of the zone arm-side. He also has trouble ‘climbing the ladder’ effectively when ahead in counts. Fulmer would either leave the Fastball out over the plate around the top of the zone or climb too much making it difficult to fool hitters into chasing the high cheese. Also, you can practically split the plot down the middle vertically and see how he attacks each side of the plate. If he’s going arm-side, he’s throwing either his Sinker or his Changeup. If he’s going glove-side, he’s throwing either his Fastball or his Slider. The approach resulted in a fourth consecutive shutout performance, with another 6 innings without allowing a run while only coughing up 2 hits and 3 walks.
Now let’s jump right into Fulmer’s nasty pitch types with the aid of 14 HD GIFs.
Fulmer’s tossed his Four-seam Fastball 24 times out of the 91 total pitches he threw on Sunday, with an average and max velocity of 96.4 and 97.9mph respectively. He threw 16 of the 24 Fastballs for strikes while failing to generate a single whiff with the pitch. The velocity is obviously there, but the movement is dependent on the angle he creates with his over-the-top delivery of the Four-seamer.
Let’s get the negative stuff out of the way first. As I said earlier, Fulmer struggled to effectively ‘climb the ladder’ when ahead. He’s trying to locate this 95mph 1-2 Fastball around Didi Gregorious’ elbows to induce a chase for the put-out but lets it fly too high making for an easy take:
Michael showcased a solid example of his Four-seam Fastball here to Chase Headley with this 0-0 96mph offering to get ahead in the count early:
My personal favorite Fastball that Fulmer threw in the outing was this 97mph 1-1 pitch to Starlin Castro that was painted at the knees on the outside black. You can see how he successfully stays on top of the pitch during release – creating that nasty downward angle and tumbling effect as the pitch nears the plate:
Fulmer used his Fastball mostly as a first pitch to batters to work ahead early in the game. He didn’t induce a single whiff with it but that says more about the Yankees as a team than it does about Michael’s effectiveness with the pitch type. The Yanks are tops in the MLB in pure Contact-% at 81.7%. When they choose to swing they rarely miss.
Michael’s Fastball counterpart is his firm Sinker. He threw 21 Sinkers that averaged 96.1mph with a maximum velocity of 97.7mph on Sunday. It’s not your typical Sinker – that much is obvious from the get-go. You’d expect a more vertical drop than what Michael’s Sinker offers, which is much more of a Two-seam Fastball effect. Fulmer gets so much running action away from lefties on the pitch that he has trouble at times locating it within the strikezone.
The first example of this issue is this 0-0 95mph Sinker Fulmer threw to Jacoby Ellsbury that just ran too much and landed outside the strikezone. Tons of movement, which is great, Fulmer just had trouble harnessing his location with the pitch:
In the at-bat immediately following Ellsbury, Fulmer tried the same pitch on Brett Gardner in an attempt to get ahead at 0-0. Unfortunately, Michael failed again to locate the immense amount of running action on this 96mph Sinker and missed high and outside for another ball:
He didn’t give up on the Sinker so easily though. Fulmer came right back in the 1-0 count to Gardner with another running 96mph Sink-piece and was granted a generous strike call on the outside corner. For a ball traveling 96mph, this is some ridiculous movement:
As you can see in these three examples, Fulmer’s Sinker has some wicked tailing action to it. It’s understandable that he has difficulty locating the pitch when it runs so far off the plate even when he starts it on the inner half. Only 10 of the 21 Sinkers he threw ended up as strikes and just like his Fastball, he didn’t manage a single whiff with the offering. I know it sounds like I’ve been negative about Fulmer’s arsenal up to this point but the fact of the matter is his off-speed pitches were clearly his most effective pitch types during this start.
The breaking ball that helped push Fulmer to the majors is his tough wipeout Slider that he pairs incredibly well with his high-velocity Fastball. He threw 30 Sliders in total, good for 33.0% of his total pitches, with an average velocity of 88.4mph while maxing out at 90.2mph. As the plot in the intro shows, Michael prefers to offer his Slider on the glove side of the plate to both righties and lefties. Regardless of which side of the dish the batter is standing on, the Slider gives hitters fits.
Brett Gardner gives us a good look at the level of frustration lefties endure when facing a Slider as dirty as this 87mph offering Fulmer locates perfectly at the knees on the inside black:
What makes Michael’s Slider so effective is his ability to locate it where hitters are expecting the 96+mph heater, only to have it disappear off the table into the dirt after the batter’s already started his swing. Carlos Beltran got the worst off this, as shown with this 1-1 89mph Slider that Carlos doesn’t even come close to connecting with:
Fulmer decided to give Beltran one more try at the disappearing Slider, going right back to it with the very next pitch. Maybe next time Carlos, but probably not. Check out this 87mph FILTH Fulmer threw for the strikeout:
Michael successfully threw 20 of his 30 Sliders for strikes and totaled 4 whiffs with the pitch. When he locates it well and disguises it as a Fastball out of the hand it’s nearly unhittable. Even at the highest level, if a batter has to start his swing early enough to catch a 97mph Fastball, and is greeted instead with the darting movement of a plus-plus Slider like Fulmer’s, the strikeouts will start stacking up. So Michael has a plus Fastball/breaking ball combo, like other young pitchers such Jon Gray and Vincent Velasquez, but what makes him so much more successful than those similar types? As many of you already know, it’s Michael’s recent increase in Changeup usage that catapults him to the top of the rookie class.
Welp, here it is. The Main Event. The reason you’re all here. The Whiff Wizardry that is Michael Fulmer’s Changeup. Fulmer threw his Changeup a total of 16 times (17.6% usage) with an average velocity of 86.7mph and a maximum of 88.4mph. It was his go-to off-speed pitch on the arm side of the plate for obvious reasons. It’s a beauty. A work of art, if you will.
The Changeup is most effective against lefties, but Michael shows us here with this 0-0 85mph ‘get-me-over’ offering to Starlin Castro that he isn’t afraid to also throw it to righties for strikes:
Fulmer threw a nearly identical Changeup to lefty Didi Gregorious, also for a first pitch strike, with this 87mph offering to get ahead in the count:
Michael also has the willingness and confidence to throw the Changeup when behind in the count, as well as the ability to paint it on the outside black to lefties with this 1-0 86mph ‘pulling of the string’ to Gardner:
The epitome of the depth and effectiveness of the Fulmer Changeup is best showcased in the 0-1 86mph offering he threw to Chase Headley. I’ve seen some pretty futile waves at pitches, and this one is right up there with the worst offences. Talk about nailing your location down and away in the zone. I can’t watch this one enough. Absolutely disgusting:
I remember breaking down Fulmer way back in the days when he was totaling just six Changeups in a whole outing (@ WSH on May 10th). I remember saying how cool it would be if he tried to double his Changeup usage and how much promise his Changeup showed me in just the 6 times he threw it. I won’t take all the credit for his success, but it’s so refreshing to see a young starting pitcher like Fulmer learn an effective 3rd pitch within just 5 major league starts. It’s incredible really, and he deserves all the attention he’s been getting lately for adapting to his surroundings and learning how to be successful at the highest level.
Final line: 6.0 IP, 2 Hits, 0 ER, 3 BBs, 3 Ks, 91 pitches (55 strikes), 12/24 first pitch strikes
So there you have it. The rookie RHP that hasn’t given up an earned run in 28.1 consecutive innings – Detroit Tigers stud, Michael Fulmer. I wouldn’t worry too much about the low strikeout total from this outing. The Yankees are one of the toughest teams to strikeout. They’re fourth best in the MLB in K% at just 18.7%. The Yanks are also first in the MLB in Contact-%, making contact with pitches they swing at 81.7% of the time. They’re also seventh best in the majors at not swinging at pitches outside the zone, with their 27.2% O-Swing %.
Over his past five starts now, Fulmer has thrown 34.1 innings while allowing just 13 hits, 1 earned run, 10 walks, and struck out 30. He’s also racked up 5 consecutive Wins in the process. Oh and by the way, Fulmer, who now totals 53.2 IP, has still allowed fewer earned runs (15) than Jose Berrios (17) this year. Berrios has thrown just 15 innings at the major league level.
It’s likely that the highly-prized acquisition the Tigers received in the Yoenis Cespedes trade will be shut down at some point in 2016. Fulmer totaled just 124.2 IP in 2015 between high A and AA. It’s not my area of expertise to speculate on a given innings cap, however, so I’ll leave it at that. Let’s just enjoy the next couple month’s we do get of witnessing the young righty growing into his role near the top of the Tigers rotation. Fulmer is already making his case as an early candidate for A.L. Rookie of the Year, with Rangers right fielder Nomar Mazara representing his main competition.
Seeing as Fulmer’s off-speed pitches were his most effective, let’s conclude this breakdown with this glorious 3-pitch sequence Michael used to get the strikeout on Brett Gardner. After falling behind 1-0, Fulmer goes: 86mph Changeup on the outer black, 87mph Slider on the inner black, and 86mph Slider away to end the inning:
Ian Post contributes for Pitcher List and grew up on the game of baseball by playing year-round through adolescence and pitching in college before finding his love for writing about the sport. When he isn’t providing pitching analysis, he can be found faithfully rooting for the Mariners, watching Game of Thrones, and searching for a new favorite IPA in the Pacific Northwest.