Detroit Tigers rookie Michael Fulmer has a lot riding on his final start of the regular season Wednesday night against the Cleveland Indians. There's the Rookie of the Year race, which he has had locked up most of the season, ever since that stretch of four consecutive scoreless starts in late May and early June, but Yankees rookie catcher Gary Sanchez has made it an interesting debate with his historic two-month run. There's the American League ERA title, which he leads but needs 6.1 innings to reach 162 innings and qualify for the season-end leaderboard.
Most importantly, there's this little thing called the wild-card race. The Tigers sit one game back of the Orioles with five games remaining.
They wouldn't be in this position without this performance from Fulmer, acquired last July in the Yoenis Cespedes trade. Free agent Jordan Zimmermann has made just 17 starts and has an ERA approaching 5. Veterans Anibal Sanchez and Mike Pelfrey are a combined 11-23 with a 5.52 ERA. Alongside Justin Verlander, Fulmer has been the stabilizing force in the rotation. Put it this way: Verlander and Fulmer are 27-15 with a 3.04 ERA and the other starters are 28-38 with a 5.18 ERA.
Of course, as with all prized young starting pitchers, there has been a season-long discussion on Fulmer's innings, although nowhere near as public as the Matt Harvey debate last year or the situation in Toronto this year with Aaron Sanchez. Fulmer is up to 170 innings including his three starts in Triple-A in April. The Tigers have, however, backed off a bit on Fulmer's workload down the stretch. First they gave him 10 days off around the All-Star break and his past five starts have come with seven, six, five, six and six days of rest. This start will come with four days of rest, his first since Aug. 19. He got roughed up in that start, giving 10 hits and six runs in 5.2 innings against Boston. That start also came after his highest pitch count of the season, 112 in a four-hit complete-game shutout of the Rangers.
Have the Tigers overworked Fulmer? Have they been too cautious? Those extra days off will end up costing him a few starts by season's end and forced the Tigers to constantly re-jigger their rotation with fill-in starters. If they end up missing the playoffs by a game there could be some second-guessing on not giving Fulmer a few more innings. I would say the Tigers have balanced this about as well as possible. He threw just 124.2 innings in the minors last year so we're looking at a 50-inning increase. On the other hand, the only way to know if a pitcher can handle a major-league workload is to give him a major-league workload.
In the backdrop of this is that the Tigers are riding an aging core of stars -- Victor Martinez is 37, Ian Kinsler 34, Miguel Cabrera 33 and Verlander 33 -- and you don't know how many more opportunities this group will have to make a playoff push. Zimmermann and Justin Upton were signed to help provide more depth, but even with Upton's September tear (11 home runs), that pair has produced just 1.9 WAR. The goal is to win, and keeping Fulmer in the rotation has clearly been the right move, as it was last year with the Mets and Harvey, as it has been with the Blue Jays and Sanchez. There are no outward signs of fatigue either, as Fulmer averaged 94.8 mph with his fastball in his last outing, the same as his season average. Look, if the Tigers make a postseason run, Fulmer could end up approaching 200 innings and maybe that's a concern, but risk is sometimes unavoidable.
As for this game, the Tigers catch a break as the Indians pushed Trevor Bauer back to Saturday, so he's in line to pitch Game 1 of the Division Series in case Corey Kluber, who left Monday's game with a strained groin, is unable to go. Reliever Zach McAllister instead will get the start in what will be a bullpen game for Cleveland. The decimated Cleveland rotation will then see Ryan Merritt make his first major-league start on Thursday. If the Tigers win those two games, they could be in good shape heading to Atlanta for the final series, where they'll face two more favorable matchups in Matt Wisler (4.86 ERA) and Aaron Blair (8.02 ERA in 14 starts).
While Upton has been hot in September, Cabrera has been on fire in the second half, hitting .336 and slugging .607. His hard-hit rate has increased from 18.9 percent to 25.6 percent. In particular, he has been crushing offspeed pitches, hitting .364 in July, .412 in August and .395 in September. J.D. Martinez has also been hot since returning from his elbow injury on Aug. 3. Since his return he ranks third in the AL with a .349 average and second with a .412 OBP. That's why the Tigers, if they get to the postseason, have the ability to surprise, even with a shaky back of the rotation and questionable bullpen. But they'll have to push Fulmer hard to win it all.