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How Tigers Rookie Michael Fulmer Is Sliding Into the Record Books

Getty/Ringer illustration
Getty/Ringer illustration

The AL Central houses some of the deadliest sliders in baseball. Corey Kluber’s won him a Cy Young, Justin Verlander’s once inspired cries of unfairness, and Chris Sale’s makes professional hitters look like Little Leaguers.

It might be time to add another pitch to the mix, because Detroit rookie Michael Fulmer is flummoxing hitters by spinning his slider into the history books: In blanking the Yankees over six innings Sunday, Fulmer lengthened his scoreless streak to 28.1 innings, putting him just 12.2 frames shy of the rookie record Grover Cleveland Alexander set in 1911.

A former first-round pick of the Mets, Fulmer, 23, isn’t a household name yet, but he has a prospect’s pedigree, having won last season’s Double-A Eastern League’s Pitcher of the Year award and served as the centerpiece in the trade that brought Yoenis Céspedes to the Mets last July.

When Fulmer received the MLB call in late April to reinforce Detroit’s scuffling starting staff, however, the right-hander began as more of a problem than a solution. After his first four appearances at the major league level, Fulmer’s ERA hovered above 6, and he was allowing a .345/.409/.536 batting line; essentially, Fulmer was turning his opposition into a lineup full of Mike Trouts.

But since delivering an 11-strikeout, one-run gem against Tampa Bay on May 21, Fulmer has been nearly untouchable. He is already the first Tiger in at least 100 years to post four straight scoreless starts, and even that description might undersell his recent performance: Since he took the mound against the Rays, Fulmer has allowed just 13 hits in 34.1 innings, holding batters to a .114/.198/.193 line.

Luck has certainly been a factor in Fulmer’s turnaround: Through his first four starts, his batting average allowed on balls in play sat at an unsightly .431; in his five most recent outings, his BABIP has dropped to a similarly unsustainable .145.

But unlike some pitchers who routinely beat the BABIP gods and survive with smoke and mirrors, Fulmer is a prototypical power pitcher. His formula for success isn’t subtle: He throws the ball hard to get ahead in the count, and then he throws the ball hard again to induce either a weak grounder or swinging strikeout.

He wields four pitches, the best of which is his slider, an electric offering that drops like a Beyoncé album, surprising batters and generating rave reviews. Here he is brandishing it to make Trout look foolish:

In 61 at-bats ending with a slider, batters have struck out 23 times and hit .098 against Fulmer, with just one extra-base hit — in part because Fulmer’s slider is one of the best in the majors at generating ground balls and pop-ups.

Between his pitch arsenal and velocity, Fulmer resembles another product of the Mets’ system: Noah Syndergaard — albeit a version that hasn’t been supernaturally infused with the magic of Mjolnir. Instead, Fulmer’s four-seamer and sinker only touch the mid-to-upper 90s, and his slider only tops out at 93 mph. But if not quite reaching Syndergaard’s level is the only knock against Fulmer, the Tigers will still gladly take the less godly variant of the Mets ace.

Of course, Fulmer’s comparative mortality might have the 32–30 Tigers facing an innings dilemma if they remain on the edges of the playoff race. Fulmer’s 124.2 innings last year marked a career high, and he’s already more than halfway to that number in 2016.

But that’s a concern for August and September. For now, Fulmer will continue to try to befuddle batters every fifth day — and possibly rewrite the record books. Alexander’s rookie mark is two starts away. Then, Fulmer can turn his sights to Orel Hershiser.