The arrival of the baseball phenom is a wondrous thing.
He comes from the minor leagues, fuzzy-faced and wide-eyed. He has an “Aw, shucks” attitude. He’s just happy to be in The Show.
He’s going up against competition that he followed as a youngster. He’s too naive to be jaded. When you ask him about theories and science of his craft, he shrugs his shoulders and says, “I’m just out there, trying to make pitches,” or “I’m just out there, trying to put a good swing on the ball.”
Any success he has in the big leagues, he’s thrilled with. He’s baseball’s version of a waif.
He’ll carry the bags of the veterans without a word of protest. Likely, he’d scrape the clubhouse toilets with a toothbrush, if that’s what the skipper wants him to do.
When the phenom arrives to play for your big league team, and shows early success—success projected by the scouts who call him a “can’t miss” kid—he’s the next [insert name of big league team legend here].
The phenom doesn’t make any money (by baseball’s standards) and he doesn’t have any control over his own destiny. With him, the team can pretend like the Reserve Clause still exists.
A true phenom doesn’t usually make the team out of spring training. He’s rarely on the Opening Day roster. Rather, he swoops in, mid-season, and sets the baseball world on fire. His hometown fans want him elected Rookie of the Year—no ifs, ands or buts.
The phenom starts out as a novelty but as his contributions mount, his name is on the tongues of experts and fans everywhere. He makes the game look easy. Suddenly he looks like the first player in the history of the game who’s never going to have a slump. Ever.
Michael Fulmer has made eight starts for the Tigers and has just one L—just like his last name.
He’s not Fullmer, but that’s OK. He’s not the first rookie whose last name has been spelled or pronounced incorrectly.
The most important L is that single, solitary one on Fulmer’s record: 6-1 with a 2.83 ERA and a thin WHIP of 1.175.
But it’s Fulmer’s four most recent outings that have Tigers fans clearing a space on his mantle for the American League Rookie of the Year Award—and they want the vote to take place yesterday.
Fulmer hasn’t just been stingy; he’s been untouchable. Scoring runs off him has been like pulling teeth with a pair of tweezers.
How about just one run allowed in his past 28.1 innings pitched, including a consecutive scoreless streak that’s reached 22.1 innings and counting? How about taking a no-hitter into the seventh inning in Anaheim?
Fulmer, the power right arm that the Tigers pried from the New York Mets last summer in the Yoenis Cespedes trade, is having the time of his life. And why not? He’s pitching brilliantly, the team is finally starting to pull it together (for now) and any success he has now is like found money for the Tigers, as Fulmer wasn’t truly expected to be counted on in the rotation until Opening Day, 2017.
It’s fitting that Fulmer is doing this in the year of the 40th anniversary of the phenom of all phenoms, Mark Fidrych, and his magical 1976 season.
Fidrych made his first start on May 15, 1976; Fulmer made his first Tigers start on April 29, 2016. Almost 40 years apart to the day.
Fidrych, actually, was on the Tigers’ Opening Day roster in 1976, though he didn’t make his big league debut until the third week of the season. He gave up a walk-off single to Don Baylor of Oakland in late-April.
On May 15, Fidrych stymied the Cleveland Indians (CG, one run, two hits) and before long, everyone knew how to pronounce his name and when to buy tickets for his next start.
Fulmer, 23, is everything that a baseball phenom normally is, except fuzzy-faced. He’s got the beard of a 10-year veteran, even if he is wet behind the ears.
I submit that Michael Fulmer, he of the eight big league starts, is the Tigers’ most important pitcher. Already.
You heard me.
Think about the Tigers rotation, as it stands now.
There’s the top two of Justin Verlander and Jordan Zimmermann—two veteran righties who know their craft. You pretty much know what you’re going to get from JV and JZ every outing.
There’s the bottom two of Mike Pelfrey and—for now—Daniel Norris. Two question marks—as nos. 4 and 5 guys normally are. Each outing is an adventure.
Sitting in the middle, functioning as the rotation’s glue, is young Fulmer.
So Fulmer goes, the Tigers rotation will go. That’s the hidden responsibility that falls on the shoulders of any team’s no. 3 guy. And the Tigers’ no. 3 guy—thanks to the implosion of Anibal Sanchez—is a rookie phenom.
Like it or not, the kid Fulmer will largely determine the Tigers’ fate as true pennant contenders.
If he falters, the rotation is back to Verlander and Zimmermann and do a rain dance for a couple of days.
If Fulmer keeps wiping out big league hitters the rest of the summer, a once-tenuous, shaky rotation suddenly looks downright nasty in spots 1-3, which is pretty much all you need in the American League, where competent starting pitching is at a premium.
It may not be the most desirable path, to put so much on a rookie’s shoulders, but that’s where the Tigers are right now.
“All of a sudden, now you feel like with Verlander, Zimmermann, Fulmer pitching like they’re pitching, it’s a good top three,” manager Brad Ausmus said after Fulmer’s silencing of the Toronto Blue Jays bats on Monday night.
And Fulmer already sounds like the typical “aw, shucks” phenom.
“Just see the sign, grip it and throw it and try to locate it as best as I can,” he said after his latest masterpiece. “At the end of the day, it’s trying to put zeroes on the board.”
Those zeroes have gone up on the board 22 times in a row, and a third.
But Fulmer also said something very ominous—if you’re a hitter—after limiting the Jays to two infield hits in six innings on Monday.
“Definitely didn’t have my best stuff tonight, I don’t think.”
It was like the beheading executioner who says, “I was an inch or two off the mark.”