Michael Fulmer: Elite Pitching Prospect?
Few, if any, minor league pitchers broke out this past season like Michael Fulmer did. The 2015 Eastern League pitcher of the year, Fulmer came back strong after injuries caused him to miss significant time in both 2013 and 2014. After being selected 44th overall in the 2011 draft, he looked to be on the fast track to national prospect recognition after a very strong 2012 season in full- season A ball as a 19 year old. However, despite injuries slowing him down, he was able to rebuild his prospect status in 2015 to the point where he was the main piece in the Mets’ trade deadline deal that landed them Yoenis Cespedes (along with pitcher Luis Cessa).
So, the question heading into the offseason is, how good of a prospect is Michael Fulmer? For minor league pitchers (and minor leaguers in general, although we’re speaking specifically about pitchers here) it is important to evaluate them based on statistics as well as on scouting reports judging their stuff. This is due to the fact that we know that many pitchers put up tremendous stats in the minor leagues, but have limited ceilings due to them not necessarily having the quality of pitches (or just plainly lacking in fastball velocity) to get out major league hitters.
Regardless, let’s start off by comparing Fulmer’s 2015 stats to those of the top pitching prospects in the game. I’ve selected all of the pitchers to be used in comparison from my Midseason Top 25 Prospect list that was released on July 15th. Of course, stocks have gone up and down since then, but this should give us a good idea of whether Fulmer fits in with the game’s elite pitching prospects statistically.
Notes: A few of the pitchers listed below have reached the big leagues since the midseason list was released. However, this list only consists of their minor league statistics for this season. Also, I have decided to include Steven Matz in this list, even though he was excluded from the midseason list since he was already in the majors at the time. He did pitch roughly as many minor league innings in 2015 as most of the other pitchers, and would have certainly made the list had he not been in the majors at the time, so he was an easy choice for inclusion. Finally, a pitcher needs to have made at least three starts at each level to have that level listed next to them (in order to exclude rehab starts from giving the wrong impression of where each pitcher pitched in 2015). However, all starts (at all levels) are counted in the statistics below. All ages are of 10/5/15.[table “410” not found /]
Based on the stats above, Michael Fulmer definitely belongs in the conversation amongst the game’s best pitching prospects. Of course, it must be noted that all of these pitchers pitched at different levels, in different leagues, and at different ages. However, when ranking the twelve starters based on how well they did in each statistic this season, we learn than Fulmer had the second best ERA (2.24), fifth best FIP (2.84), ninth best K% (25.1%), third lowest BB% (6%), and sixth best K%-BB% (19.1%). He is not the youngest prospect on the list, but also not the oldest, as nine of the twelve pitchers are currently either 21 or 22 years old (Fulmer is 22).
Statistically speaking, Michael Fulmer clearly fits in neatly amongst the game’s best pitching prospects, at least based on their 2015 results. Of course, he does not have as strong of a pedigree of past success as many of the above pitchers, but that could easily be attributed to the various injuries he has suffered in 2013 and 2014. In 2012, when he was healthy and pitching in full season ball at only 19 years old, Fulmer put up much better numbers than in 2013 and 2014, and looked destined to be a nationally recognized prospect. It may have taken him a couple extra years to continue to improve, but in 2015, he clearly broke out big time statistically.
However, as noted earlier in this article, minor league stats mean nothing without having a strong enough arsenal of pitches. Michael Fulmer may not have the type of off the charts, jaw- dropping stuff that fellow prospects Lucas Gioito and Tyler Glasnow have, but nonetheless, his stuff is very strong by all accounts. In an August 17th scouting report Mark Anderson of BaseballProspectus.com rated both Fulmer’s fastball and slider as current plus pitches (65 and 60, respectively, on a 20-80 scale) with both having the potential to become 70 grade pitches as Fulmer progresses. According to Anderson, Fulmer’s fastball velocity sat in the 94-95 range, reaching all the way up to 98. Even his changeup, which Anderson only graded as a 45 pitch currently, has the potential to become a 50 pitch in the future, which is average. Of course, this is just one report, but it seems to be in line with the general consensus on Fulmer from a scout’s perspective, as his stuff is clearly impressive. With two plus pitches and a solid, improving changeup, Fulmer also clearly has the stuff to be a strong major league pitcher.
Mark Anderson claims in his report that Michael Fulmer’s realistic projection is that of a #3 starter. I’d personally say that’s a fair assessment, but could see him becoming a #2 if he continues to develop. With a 6’3”, 200 lb frame, Fulmer should have no problem enduring the rigors of making 30 or so starts over a full season, so I doubt he’ll have to worry about moving to the bullpen if he stays healthy and keeps developing his changeup. His feel for his changeup should continue to progress in my opinion, but like most pitchers with injury histories, the health factor is always a question mark.
Entering the 2015 offseason and the 2016 season, Fulmer would easily make my Top 50 prospect list with room to spare. On pure talent alone, he would probably make my Top 25 as well. However, considering his injury history, he may fall just outside the Top 25. If he can stay healthy, I can see Fulmer being a very strong starting pitcher for many years. He fits in with the pitching prospects deemed the best in the game, both statistically and stuff- wise, as demonstrated above.
Without a doubt, Fulmer has proven to be a strong return for the Tigers in the Yoenis Cespedes trade, even as Cespedes went on to do magical things for the Mets over the last two months. Since the Tigers’ front office almost had to trade Cespedes this trade deadline (due to the team being out of contention and Fulmer having that weird clause in his contract making it almost impossible for his original team to resign him), many teams would have not received that type of compensation in return. Credit must be given to the Tigers’ front office for receiving a prospect of Fulmer’s caliber, as by almost all indications, he seems to be an elite pitching prospect.