The Fulmer innings conservation plan begins
Michael Fulmer made his Major League debut a little less than four months ago, on a Friday night in Minnesota. Had he stayed on turn in the Tigers rotation, he’d be on track to return to Minnesota to face the Twins on Thursday afternoon. Obviously, as we’ve chronicled for a while, that’s not happening.
With today’s off day, two starters — Anibal Sanchez and Matt Boyd — will get an extra day of rest before their start against the Twins. Daniel Norris and Justin Verlander move up a day and pitch Thursday and Friday against the Twins and Angels, respectively. The team will wait until Saturday, the day they need a fifth starter, to send Fulmer back to the mound against the Angels at Comerica Park.
It’s a way to buy Fulmer extra rest without actually pulling him out of the rotation or, as the Blue Jays are doing with Aaron Sanchez, optioning him to the minor leagues for a brief spell. And depending on how aggressively the Tigers want to push Fulmer back, it could save him two starts’ worth of innings by the end of the regular season compared to keeping him on turn the rest of the way.
Part of that difference depends on the next couple weeks and how the Tigers use their next off-day. It’s next Thursday, before the Tigers begin a big three-game series at Kansas City. It’s also five days after Fulmer faces the Angels on Saturday. If the Tigers want to use that off-day to push Fulmer back again, they could wait until Sept. 6, the following Tuesday, before pitching him again on nine days’ rest. If they used the next off-day to push him back once more, he would pitch again a week later, Sept. 13, against the Twins at home.
Go down the calendar, map out the off-days and how long the Tigers can wait before needing a fifth starter, and Fulmer could end up with just six starts the rest of the way, including two of the last three against Cleveland. If he were to average six innings a start, that would be 36 more innings to his current total of 141 between Detroit and Toledo, or 177 innings total for the season. That would be a 42 percent increase from his 124 2/3 innings pitched in the minor leagues last year.
If the Tigers kept him on turn next week and had him face the Royals on Sept. 2 to open the series in KC, however, he would not be in position to be pushed back on a couple of other off-days in September. He’d be in line for seven starts the rest of the season, still facing the Indians twice and White Sox and Twins once, but with the KC start added in.
That would still save Fulmer innings compared to if the Tigers had simply not pushed him back at all and had him face Minnesota this Thursday and go from there. He would have been in line for eight starts the rest of the season, including the Oct. 2 regular season finale at Atlanta.
All of these are theoretical scenarios. Brad Ausmus said Friday they’ve mapped out the rotation through next Thursday’s off-day with the pitchers they currently have, so they haven’t necessarily decided on the Kansas City series yet. That also doesn’t include injured starters Jordan Zimmermann and Mike Pelfrey, either of whom could give Ausmus an opportunity to skip Fulmer for a full turn if he so chooses.
Zimmermann is expected to make three rehab starts for Triple-A Toledo, beginning Friday and culminating on Labor Day, Sept. 5. If the Tigers were to bring him back the following weekend against Baltimore, they could conceivably buy Fulmer a turn off and set him up for the Cleveland series the following weekend. The same could go for Pelfrey, who has to throw a simulated game this week in Minnesota before his rehab schedule is set. He won’t have enough time left in the Triple-A schedule to get three rehab starts, but he could get two. If the Tigers want to be sure to hold Fulmer under 170 innings, using one of the returning starters to skip a turn is one way to get there.
The other factor, of course, is what happens if the Tigers fall out of contention before the final week of the season. When the Tigers clinched a playoff berth with a week to go in the 2006 regular season, Verlander didn’t pitch in any of the final six games, giving way to a Zach Miner spot start in the final weekend. The Tigers could simply play it by ear and see how the race unfolds before planning out Fulmer’s closing stretch.