Not all Major League pitchers are struggling with the long ball. Michael Fulmer has figured out the key to bucking the trend.
Home runs are being hit at an all-time high, but it’s hard not to already know that. Just read any of the hundreds of internet articles written on the subject (like this one), turn on any regular season baseball game, or for a more aesthetic experience watch the best pitcher in baseball give up four long balls in one start. The causes of this home run barrage aren’t definitively known, but that’s not what this article is about. We’re here to talk about a second-year pitcher on the Detroit Tigers who has figured out how to buck the trend that is impacting some of the best in the game.
Image Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports
Michael Fulmer, last year’s AL Rookie of the Year, currently leads all qualified starters (QS) with a 0.49 HR/9 and 6.1% HR/FB percentage. He’s already matched his WAR total from last year (3.1 fWAR currently), with plenty of season to go. Much of his success, and accompanying All-Star selection, comes from his extreme ground ball tendencies and strong pitch repertoire.
At 49.4%, he ranks 13th among QS in GB%. Among QS, there are just six ground ball pitchers (45+ GB%) with lower exit velocities on ground balls than Fulmer (80.9 MPH), two of whom are among the best in the game (Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke).
Fulmer also has his an elite sinker at his disposal. It doesn’t have the same sinking movement as your traditional sinker — so much so that sites like Baseball Savant don’t recognize the pitch as a sinker — but it does have more bite than a traditional four seamer. Fulmer also wields a more traditional four seamer to accompany his elite sinker. Did I forget to mention that he throws both iterations around 96 MPH? Fulmer’s high heaters are no ordinary pitches.
But it isn’t enough to be a ground ball pitcher with a fast sinker to produce positive results. While Kershaw and Greinke both have low exit velocity averages on ground balls, so do Tyler Chatwood, Jaime Garcia, Edinson Volquez, and Scott Feldman. JC Ramirez and Gerritt Cole are both ground ball pitchers with similar sinker velocity, but neither have produced quality results so far this season. Each of those pitchers have either struggled with walks (Edinson Volquez currently leads QS with 5.17 BB/9) or haven’t been able to avoid the long ball like Fulmer has.
Fulmer’s success is even more curious when you consider how he’s been getting his outs. Unlike most superstar pitchers, Fulmer allows plenty of contact and balls in play. He is just one of three starters this season with a sub 3.50 ERA despite having a contact percentage greater than 80% (Ivan Nova and Mike Leake are the other two). That high contact rate corresponds with a relatively low 6.8 K/9. Comparing Fulmer’s zone maps with another top pitcher (and Sunday Night Baseball opponent) exemplifies this story well:
While Corey Kluber’s pitches sit predominantly in the bottom third of the strike zone, Fulmer’s pitches sit more often in the middle third of the plate. That probably explains the difference in strikeouts, but it doesn’t explain how Fulmer has still seen success despite allowing so much contact.
We already know that Fulmer induces very weak ground balls; his sinker certainly helps orchestrate that. But how has Fulmer limited the damage on the few fly balls he does allow? It helps that nearly half his fly balls (29.9%) are of the infield popup variety (13.3%). He also features two above average high velocity breaking pitches — an 88 MPH changeup and 90 MPH slider — and is currently working on adding a third to his repertoire.
So whether it’s his propensity to induce ground balls, or his high velocity [soon-to-be] five-pitch repertoire, Fulmer is doing something right to keep the ball from leaving the park. He’s done this throughout his career, never finishing a Minor League season with a HR/9 greater than 1.0. Fulmer certainly has room to improve his game, better locating his pitches to increase his strikeout totals, but even now he’s already the ace of the Detroit Tigers looking to bring them back into postseason contention.
*All stats are updated entering Saturday July 8th. Stats were obtained from FanGraphs, Baseball Savant, Brooks Baseball, and Baseball Reference.
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