By Friend of the Blog, Andrew Welch
(Find Andrew’s other guest post here)
As we approach tomorrow’s deadline Tigers fandom is itching for Avila to get off his lazy ass and make a trade. Trade Fiers, trade Liriano, trade Iglesias, trade Greene, trade Martin but the result of any inaction or action will be met with the same response of last year’s JD Martinez trade: “THE TIGERS DIDN’T GET ENOUGH!” “THEY TRADED HIM TOO EARLY/TOO LATE!” “AL AVILA SUCKS!”
The one polarizing figure we’re all waiting with bated breath for is Tigers ace Michael Fulmer: should he stay, should he go? Is he good or is he bad? Is he an 8-story tall crustacean from the protozoic era or is he a pitcher that goes out and throws every five days?
More after the jump!

Despite the possibility that Fulmer may ask you for about tree fiddy, the Tigers shouldn’t be trading their cornerstone arm for the franchise’s future. This is a player that’s a proven front of the rotation to dead middle of the rotation pitcher. Detroit still holds FIVE years worth of control of Fulmer, and at 25, he’s a pitcher that’s just entering his prime.
We’ve seen Fulmer shatter a record for consecutive scoreless innings for a rookie, we’ve seen him look like that same guy in 2017 before he stupidly tried to pitch through an injury that landed him on the DL, and we’ve seen him try near the same thing again this year with worse results but better stuff when healthy.

In the new world of analytics, with slow motion capture cameras to break down mechanics and grips, and spin rate, his age is invaluable to Detroit. We’ve seen many pitchers suddenly find consistency and even stardom that scouts didn’t foresee happening thanks to the acceptance of new technology.

Al Avila will make you a deal you can’t refuse. (Photo by Alexandra Simon)

Justin Verlander, Trevor Bauer, Matthew Boyd, the entire Astros pitching staff really, and any pitcher that follows @pitchingninja have benefited from the new age awareness of improved technology. Bauer and Boyd, products of Driveline, have both seen improvements as pitchers. Driveline teaches pitchers how to add velocity through weighted ball regiments and high intensity throwing programs along with teaching pitchers how to obtain the optimal grip using slow motion capture camera and high speed cameras to calculate spin rate to help generate more run on a fastball and more break on offspeed pitches.

Former ace and master tinkerer, Justin Verlander. (Photo by Alexandra Simon)

Verlander specifically has credited Astros slow motion capture cameras for helping him change the grip on his slider to generate more depth. New technology notwithstanding, pitchers with little prospect pedigree have also jumped out of nowhere thanks to leaps obtained from having a good pitching coach. Jake Arrieta, Corey Kluber, Kyle Hendricks are just a few names that have seen themselves burst forth into stardom at an older age than Fulmer while being terrible in seasons prior.

Additionally, Fulmer’s 2018 seems eerily similar to Verlander’s 2008. Both pitchers experienced abnormal issues with control while their pure stuff looked to take a leap. Fulmer’s 2018 has seen the percentage of his fastballs for balls jump from 35 to 39 and his whiff rate jump from 9% to 14%. In 2017, Fulmer threw his slider for a half 40% of the time compared to 30% this year while he’s also seen a slight jump in whiff rate from 15.79% to 17.19%.

Unfortunately, the pitch that made his jump to the MLB possible—his changeup—has been a big struggle for him this year. He’s seen his ball rate rise from 35% to almost 39%, his whiff rate drop from 18.5% to 13.5% and his balls in play percentage jump to 22 from 20. This could be attributed to his elbow problems or just an issue with his control in general.

In a recent start, Michael Fulmer was… shall we say… squeezed. (Image from @PitcherList on Twitter)

To my eye, Fulmer’s slider is making a leap to turn into a true out pitch. His slider seems to be generating a tighter spin which is generating more depth and late break down and into lefties and away from righties. Hitters seem to struggle to differentiate between that and his fastball. There’s almost a 10MPH difference between the two pitches and a 4 MPH difference from last year’s slider. We might be seeing Fulmer learning how to pitch and that he needs to dial back a bit on the velocity to generate more spin or it could be the coaching staff from the Tigers recognizing it. Either way, this is a very positive sign for his future. He needs a strikeout pitch and has struggled to develop so far in his career. With the development of his slider and a return to form of the changeup that made his career possible it makes Fulmer a formidable top of the rotation starter which Detroit desperately craves.
Something to keep in mind: in the history of elite pitchers, almost all of them have that one incredibly bad year where nothing makes sense.
The ability for the Tigers to recuperate value in trading Fulmer is going to be an incredibly tough task. Again, Michael is a proven starter that has shown himself to be a #2/3 aggregated over the course of his career. Trading Fulmer isn’t going to net you any proven players. He’s going to net you a few prospects that’ll be underwhelming because teams will have concerns with regards to his injury history and the possibility that he doesn’t reclaim the form he showed pre injury last year.
Teams also can’t match what Fulmer’s value is worth. In this tweet thread @tokarzontigers did some “valuable” research back in December about the true value of Michael Fulmer and what scout value for prospects the Tigers should receive. While there’s a possibility he won’t improve, he is already a 25 year old with a 3 fWAR and a 3.5 fWAR season under his belt. If you subscribe to the money/WAR theory, you’ll know that a money value is set per WAR against the average player at 0, 1 win is worth 9 million or so.
Say Fulmer makes 40 million over the life of his control with the Tigers. If he’s worth 3 WAR each season of the 5, that’s 135 million in value to the Tigers leaving them with a surplus of 95 million. If he’s worth 3.5 WAR per that’s a value of 157.5M giving them 117.5 in surplus and at 4 WAR on average that’s 180 million giving the Tigers 140 million in surplus so and so forth.
Dave Cameron, formerly of Fangraphs and now in the San Diego padres front office, did a breakdown about what grade prospects teams should receive in terms of the value of the player is worth per money/WAR in this article. The Fangraphs crew licensed a prospect valuation model wherein the two creators of the model felt that no prospect from 1994 to 2017 garnered the coveted 80 grade on the 20-80 scale.

Michael Fulmer: should he stay or should he go? (Photo by Alexandra Simon)

On the valuation scale, a 75 grade prospect hitter is worth 175 million and a pitcher is worth 83. The only two prospects the grade was given to were Alex Rodriguez and Andruw Jones.  2017’s top prospect, Yoan Moncada, a 70 grade player, is valued at 107 million. At 3 WAR a season and 135 million in value, that returns the Tigers, at minimum, Gleyber Torres and Clint Frazier. At 5 years, there’s no value in which a team could give you that would match the value to the Tigers. Teams simply aren’t going to give up their best prospects based on that last calendar year of Michael Fulmer. Also, I beg of you prospect huggers to PLEASE go and look at the prospect lists of the past and find the percentage of the top 100 that make it to the big leagues and become productive players. Prospects will break your fucking heart so there’s no use in trading a young, controlled asset for more prospects.

The Tigers farm includes a wealth of pitching prospects, Matt Manning, Alex Faedo, Casey Mize, Beau Burrows, Franklin Perez. The odds of them all making the bigs and being contributors to the team is low. 3 of them, if not 4, will likely bust. Why take the risk of trading away a proven All-Star starter for more guys that MIGHT reach the heights that Fulmer already has? Hell, Fulmer becoming Fulmer was an oddity. Fulmer came into his first start with a good fastball, decent slider, and an average changeup with okay control.

Could catcher James McCann be leading Fulmer down a dark path? (Photo by Alexandra Simon)

Fulmer needed to refine control and command to make it and develop another pitch and he did. His changeup jumped 2 grades in the span of a month for the Tigers and the rest is history. There’s no logical reason the Tigers should trade Fulmer right now, unless they get a team’s top 5 prospects.
Trading Fulmer is not a solution to the Tigers’ rebuild, it just creates a larger gap in the Tigers’ future. Without Fulmer, they’ll likely struggle to develop another pitcher that can be a top of the rotation starter. Michael has shown the tools in the past and the tools now that could help him attain that spot and hold onto it. No team is going to give the Tigers what they’d require to recoup the value lost in a trade of Fulmer and there’s no reason to take the chance on a bunch of prospects that MIGHT be that good when you have a guy that IS that good. The Tigers’ willingness to beef up the analytics department and actually utilize it also shows a commitment to the future. If Fulmer is able to get healthy again and makes the necessary changes to his grip, the future for both the Tigers and Fulmer is very bright indeed.

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