This article appeared in The Wall Street Journal on August 26, 2016.
Pitching phenoms in MLB rarely get overlooked. In 1984, Dwight Gooden, just 19 at the time, famously struck out 276 batters for the New York Mets. Three years prior, the Dodgers’ Fernando Valenzuela set a rookie record with eight shutouts (in a strike-shortened season, no less), as Fernandomania swept the country. And in 1976, the Tigers’ Mark “The Bird” Fidrych took all of baseball by storm during his inaugural campaign when he won 19 games and led the Majors in ERA.
With just over a month left in the 2016 season, another first-year starter is making a similar impact in Detroit. Though Michael Fulmer doesn’t yet have a catchy nickname and Fulmermania isn’t really a thing, it may be time to add him to the list of the game’s all-time elite rookie hurlers.
A 2011 first-round draft pick by the Mets, Fulmer was acquired by Detroit in a deal that sent outfielder, Yoenis Cespedes, to New York at last year’s trade deadline. The Tigers called him up in late April and he promptly won seven of his first eight decisions. Through 20 big league starts, Fulmer is 10-4 and has an American League-best 2.58 ERA. In 11 of his outings, he’s yielded one or fewer earned runs.
Opposing batters have only been able to muster a feeble .218 batting average against Fulmer. In fact, he has already had four starts in which he’s completed at least six innings and given up no more than two hits.
Fulmer is on pace to finish the year with 6.0 WAR (a measure of how many wins a player adds to his team above what a replacement player would contribute). He would become the only American League starter in the past 35 years with at least 6.0 WAR during his rookie season and just the sixth to do so since 1901. In the modern era, only two Hall of Famers – Christy Mathewson (9.1 WAR, 1901) and Tom Seaver (6.7, 1967) – have surpassed Fulmer’s 6.0 WAR pace as first-year starting pitchers.
The Tigers sit a mere three games out of the A.L.’s final wild card spot and Fulmer is a big reason they’re in contention. Detroit is 16-4 when he pitches, but only 50-55 when he doesn’t.
(photo by Rick Briggs)