Detroit Tigers: Here’s why Michael Fulmer should be better in 2021

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We take a look back at Michael Fulmer’s season for the Detroit Tigers after Tommy John surgery and how it compares to others with similar return times.

The Detroit Tigers 2020 starting rotation on paper heading into the shorten schedule looked promising with the return of Michael Fulmer, 16 months after Tommy John surgery.  However, Fulmer’s numbers showed his struggles. Fulmer was limited to three innings in every start as he was working his back from surgery. When he spoke to the media, he discussed how he was feeling stronger as he was working his way back. Per his comments to Freep.com: 

“My goal when we set a date for the season opener was to make that Opening Day roster and pitch all year and make every single one of my starts,” Fulmer said Thursday. “Not have to get skipped or pushed back because of soreness or tightness. … I’ve got to be better. I will be better next year, for sure. This year, you know, it’s been a tough one.”

Chris Brown highlighted his adjustments to his mechanics as well as Brandon Day of Bless You Boys about a month back.

During the podcast last week, Chris mentioned an idea that I wanted to research. How did starting pitchers do their first two seasons after Tommy John? How this will affect the Detroit Tigers’ rotation in 2021?

The reason why I used two seasons is to see how much of a difference when they first come back when pitchers are still testing what they have in their arsenal than the second season removed from surgery. Let’s start with a pitcher from the same system Fulmer came from.

Jacob deGrom

  • Surgery Date: 10/10/2010
  • Return Date: 5/7/2012
  • Recovery time: 19 months
  • First season 2012: (minors-Low-A, High-A) 9-3 2.43 ERA 111.1 IP 96 K’s 20BB 19 starts
  • Second season 2013: (minors-High-A, Double-A, Triple-A) 7-7 4.50 ERA 147.2 120 K 46BB 26 starts

This first example was a pitcher who had the surgery in the minors before he got the call-up and was the first pitcher to win the Cy Young after undergoing Tommy John surgery. After rookie ball in 2010, deGrom would go under the knife. Within four years, he would reach the majors and be the dominant ace he has been with the Mets. But something to remember. deGrom did have to go another procedure to repair a damaged nerve in the right elbow in 2016.  His trophy case is impressive, a Rookie of the Year and back to back Cy Young awards.

Adam Wainwright

  • Surgery Date: 2/28/2011
  • Return Date: 4/7/2012
  • Recovery Time: 13 months
  • First season: 2012:  14-13 3.94 ERA 198.2 IP 184 K’s 52 BB in 32 starts.
  • Second season: 2013: 19-9 2.94 ERA 241.1 IP 219K’s 35 BB in 34 starts

After finishing runner up in 2010 in the NL Cy Young race, Wainwright started the spring in 2011 with some pain and was out for 13 months.  You can see the difference in his numbers after his first season, post-Tommy John. Per Brooks Baseball.net, his four-seam fastball was 91 to as low as 88 in 2012, however, in 2013, the average stayed between 92 to 91 MPH. Wainwright continued his career to be the workhorse starter for the Cardinals.

Zack Wheeler

  • Surgery Date: 3/25/2015
  • Return Date: 4/17/2017
  • Recovery Time: 24 months
  • First season: 2017: 3-7 5.21 ERA 86 IP 81K’s 40 BB in 17 starts
  • Second season: 2018: 12-7 3.31 ERA 182.1 IP 179K’s 55 BB in 29 starts

A more recent example. Wheeler’s fastball average in 2017 was 95 MPH flat until July when he was put on the DL due to a stress reaction on his right arm and was shut down for the season. Even after spending a brief run in the minors in 2018, Wheeler had a strong season. Per Brooks Baseball.net, his fastball started to climb from 95MPH in April and stayed around 96-97 for the rest of the season.

Stephen Strasburg

  • Surgery Date: 9/3/2010
  • Return Date: 9/6/2011
  • Recovery Time: 12 months
  • First season: 2012: 15-6 3.16 ERA 159.1 IP 197K’s 48 BB in 28 starts
  • Second season: 2013: 8-9 3.00 ERA 183 IP 191 K’s 56 BB in 30 starts

Of all the pitchers on the list, Strasburg was the quickest to come back. The Nationals, like the Tigers, put an innings limit on him in his return back. Since then, he has thrown 200 innings twice, in 2014 and in 2019.  The fastball average stayed the same in 2012 and 2013. But like the others, he threw more innings.

Dinelson Lamet

  • Surgery Date: 4/20/2018
  • Return Date: 7/4/2019
  • Recovery Time: 14 months
  • First season: 2019: 3-5 4.07 ERA 73 IP 105 K’s 30 BB in 14 starts
  • Second season: 2020: 3-1 2.09 ERA 69 IP 93 K’s 20 BB in 12 starts

Lamet had a strong second season post Tommy John surgery. He allowed 62 hits in 73 innings pitched in 2019 but this year, he allowed only 39. He also saw a bump in his fastball velocity, going from 95-96 in 2019 to 96-97 in 2020.

Conclusion

Overall, the data shows that the second year tends to work out better so Detroit Tigers fans should have some faith that Michael Fulmer may show a growth coming back in 2021. The Tommy John Surgery List is quite an extensive list so if you have a moment to check it out, I would highly suggest it.

Fulmer’s fastball average in 2018 was 96-97 before the surgery and this year, it was 92-93. He has the entire off-season to continue to work on getting his strength back but that is a number to look at heading in 2021. Will he have to adjust to throwing his other pitches more? Does that mean he will have to tinker with grips more? We shall see. As Brandon Day indicated, his slider was really good and the data shows.  His whiff % increased to 36.7%, up from 35% before surgery in 2018.

Of course, this is a very small sample size but it could be a sign for things to come. He did start throwing a curve, which he only threw 26 times but did not allow a hit with it. Again, small sample size but curious to see if we will see that pitch more in 2021.

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