Tigers righty Michael Fulmer has received a recommendation that he undergo Tommy John surgery, Anthony Fenech of the Detroit Free Press reports on Twitter. He’d stand to miss the entire 2019 season and in all likelihood a portion of the 2020 campaign as well.
Fulmer’s medical status has been a bit of a mystery of late, but this news comes as a surprise. He had been shut down recently, purportedly to work on mechanical issues tied to his recovery from last season’s knee surgery, but obviously was dealing with something else entirely. Fulmer had shown a worrying loss of velocity this spring after turning in a subpar, injury-marred 2018 campaign.
It’s not yet certain that Fulmer will go under the knife, but that seems to be far and away the likeliest outcome. Per the Tigers, both a team doctor and noted surgeon Dr. James Andrews have already recommended that Fulmer receive a full replacement of his ulnar collateral ligament.
This is hardly the news anyone wanted for Fulmer, who reached his 26th birthday just days ago. Fortunately for the righty, he already agreed to a $2.8MM salary for the coming season. On the bright side for the club, they won the arbitration hearing and thus avoided a larger payout.
In all likelihood, the Tigers will end up paying Fulmer that $2.8MM both this season and next, while hoping he’ll be able to contribute by the middle of the 2020 campaign. Fulmer is controllable in 2021 and 2022 as well. His earning power in those years will depend upon what he’s able to do in ’20; it’ll unquestionably be diminished by the lengthy absence.
The Detroit organization has thus far centered its rebuilding effort on young pitching, with a series of interesting arms moving up through the ranks. It seemed through his first two seasons in the majors that Fulmer might be a veteran anchor for the next great Tigers staff — or, instead, a big trade chip who’d reel in loads of young talent.
That outlook already changed last year, as Fulmer struggled to a 4.69 ERA in 132 1/3 innings. During his excellent debut campaign and solid follow-up effort, Fulmer’s unexciting strikeout numbers were explained away by some. The line was that his overpowering arsenal and ability to induce weak contact made it unnecessary for Fulmer to rack of Ks. The narrative shifted over the course of the 2018 season. Even as hard contact rose (39.5%), his groundball rate (44.2%) and home run suppression (1.29 per nine innings, 14.5% HR/FB rate) dove despite steady 96 mph velocity readings on his fastball.
Perhaps Fulmer would have found his way back to being a high-quality starter had he not encountered knee issues that ultimately resulted in a meniscus procedure. The connection between that joint, his reduced velo this spring, and his problematic elbow isn’t completely clear, but it certainly seems plausible that all are interrelated. He’ll now have a lengthy absence to work through the varying health issues. If all goes well, Fulmer could return to be a quality hurler once more.