Detroit Tigers pitcher Michael Fulmer returns after Tommy John surgery

(Photo by Mark Cunningham/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
(Photo by Mark Cunningham/MLB Photos via Getty Images) /

Michael Fulmer will return to the Detroit Tigers after nearly a year and a half away from regular action. He will provide an exciting reason to tune back into the games as he hopefully bolsters the starting rotation.

After three straight losing seasons, the Detroit Tigers have not provided many recent reasons to get excited. With the amount of fantastic young prospects on the rise, though, this may soon change. These prospects will inevitably change the look of the pitching staff, but one newly-returning player, Michael Fulmer, will be another point of interest in the shortened campaign.

Michael Fulmer had an auspicious start to his career. He was the runaway winner of the American League Rookie of the Year Award and even garnered some Cy Young votes. He was less dominant the following year but was still selected for his first All-Star appearance. 2018, however, was a disaster of a season marred with injury. He suffered an oblique strain in the summer and then had knee surgery following the season.

Just before the beginning of the 2019 season, he faced another setback: Tommy John surgery. Now, Fulmer will go nearly two years between starts; he has not appeared in a Major League Baseball game since September 2018. Needless to say, this trajectory from Rookie of the Year to a season-ending surgery has not been a good one.

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In 2016, Fulmer was 11-7, striking out 7.5 batters per nine innings. While not tremendous numbers on the surface, he was particularly good at limiting runs. He famously went 33+ innings throughout six starts without giving up a run, and his home runs per nine innings stayed below 1. His velocity increased slightly in 2017, and his HR/9 dropped to 0.71–good for second in the league–but minor injuries led to a more pedestrian end to his sophomore season. Those minor injuries then turned more serious in 2018 and a missed 2019 altogether. An extended break may be just what Fulmer needed.

Still only 27 years of age, Michael Fulmer may be one of the few people to benefit from this delayed season. The late start to the season has given Fulmer extra time to recover, just as it provides a natural limit to the rest of a young pitching staff. This has been a minor bright spot in the otherwise horrible pandemic affecting the entire world. As if baseball fans need any more reason to be eager about the restart, Fulmer, as an unknown quantity, is an interesting consideration.

Will Fulmer return to his ace status of 2016 and ’17? Truly, until he sees live-action, we have no way of knowing. Many players have found success after having surgery: Stephen Strasburg had the surgery early in his career–like Fulmer–and he was last year’s World Series MVP. But for every success story, there are pitchers who are never the same. So, how much does that affect the outlook for the Detroit Tigers? Luckily, the need to have an “ace” is not an immediate concern. As we have speculated, the Tigers may field a six-man rotation, and having one standout pitcher is less important than having multiple competent ones.

Last season, Jordan Zimmermann started on Opening Day, where he shut out the Blue Jays in seven innings. While he did not get credit for the win, it was a strong outing in the first of few wins for the team. As of yet, manager Ron Gardenhire has not announced who will start the first official game next week against the Reds, but it will probably be Matt Boyd. After what he submitted last year, he has earned it.

Beyond Boyd and Fulmer, the Tigers will have Zimmermann in the last year of his contract, looking to make an impression for a future deal. Spencer Turnbull will return after a bright first full season. Daniel Norris will start the year on the injured list after testing positive for COVID-19, but when he returns, he will also be looking to prove himself in a contract year.

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Add in the plethora of young, upcoming pitchers, and the starting rotation will be filled out nicely. The Detroit Tigers will still lose quite a few games in this limited season, but it will not be for lack of starting pitching.