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After rocky start, rookie Michael Fulmer impressing for Tigers

After a rocky start to his rookie season, Tigers starter Michael Fulmer is impressing on the mound and was dominant again in a rout of the Blue Jays on Monday. 

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Unless you’re a prospect junkie, or a devoted follower of the New York Mets, you probably didn’t know who Michael Fulmer was at this time last June. By now, you’re well aware.

Taken by the Mets with the 44th selection in the 2011 MLB draft out of Deer Creek High School in Edmond, Okla., the 18-year-old was like most tantalizing young arms; he boasted a supreme fastball, but had years of work ahead of him before his slider and changeup would make him a major-league starting pitcher. In time, Fulmer developed an effective slider, but couldn’t quite do the same with his changeup—the pitch that would either relegate him to the bullpen, or place him at the back of a starting rotation.

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In need of a bat, the Mets, who already had a surplus of young talent in their rotation, dealt Fulmer, along with fellow prospect Luis Cessa, to the Detroit Tigers before last year’s trading deadline in exchange for Cuban slugger Yoenis Cespedes. Given the magnitude of the bat changing hands, Fulmer was squarely on the map, though the change of scenery didn’t magically fix his problems. The young righthander needed to shake the injury bug, nursing a torn meniscus and bone spur in his elbow in consecutive seasons. He also required some polishing of his changeup.

Now 23, Fulmer has overcome his injury woes, polished up his secondary pitches and gained some serious steam after a slow start to his rookie campaign.

On Monday night, in an 11–0 win over the Blue Jays, Fulmer tossed six shutout innings, scattering just two hits and three walks, to extend his shutout streak to  22 ⅓ innings, a franchise record for a rookie. He showcased his entire arsenal, touching 96 with his four-seamer, earning five swings-and-misses with a sweeping slider and recording three of his five strikeouts on the changeup.

After posting a dreadful 6.52 ERA over 20 innings across his first four starts, Fulmer has allowed just one run and 11 hits in a total of 28 ⅓ frames over his last four outings. He has even begun to unlock his strikeout potential, sitting down 11 in a win over the Rays on May 21, and fanning eight Angels on June 1.

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​Fulmer’s struggles came in a three-game stretch in May following his so-so debut, where he was plagued by hard-hit flyballs—which have never gone to benefit a major-league pitcher. His flyball rate hasn’t really plummeted since then, but his hard-hit rate has, and his ground ball rate has risen. Fewer home runs and more ground balls make for a happy pitcher.

For the Tigers, who stand third in the American League Central, Fulmer’s recovery from a stumble out of the gate is heartwarming news. Their best pitcher, Jordan Zimmermann, is 30, and their No. 2, Justin Verlander, is 33. This team isn’t likely to compete for a World Series in 2016, and hasn’t had a starter in his early 20s to hype since Rick Porcello came up years ago. Fulmer is a long way from being the next face of Detroit’s franchise, but he’s not too far from being a nice trade-deadline haul.