Mensching: Why Tigers’ Fulmer deserves Rookie of the Year

Kurt Mensching
Special to The Detroit News
Michael Fulmer

It doesn’t seem a stretch to believe Tigers starter Michael Fulmer will be the popular pick around these parts for the American League Rookie of the Year award.

He’s far exceeded expectations, at times playing 1B to Justin Verlander’s 1A at the top of Detroit’s rotation, and helping to keep the team in the playoff hunt despite the loss and ineffectiveness of several veteran players.

It isn’t much of a surprise, either, that those in and around New York believe Yankees catcher / designated hitter Gary Sanchez deserves the laurels.

Since Aug. 3 he has hit 19 home runs, has an average of .322 and an OPS surpassing Miguel Cabrera’s peak seasons.

If you start to extrapolate out those numbers, even Barry Bonds would blush. It’s pretty incredible.

So right from the start, I should make it clear: There’s really not a wrong pick to be made in that pair. It’s perfectly reasonable to say that according to the criteria someone feels is most important, either Fulmer or Sanchez deserves the award a little bit more.

As Jeff Sullivan wrote at Fangraphs recently, the most remarkable thing here is that this shouldn’t even have been a race.

Fulmer should probably have run away with the award – and has done little on his own to let Sanchez into the conversation. Sanchez has just been so remarkable as to force his way into it.

But there’s one pick that makes a little more sense than the other to me: Fulmer.

Since making his MLB debut April 29, he’s compiled an AL-leading 2.95 ERA and currently has pitched enough innings to earn the ERA crown. During a 10-game stretch from mid-May through mid-July, Fulmer struck out 55 in 65 innings and had an ERA of 0.83, allowing no runs during a four-game stretch in which he pitched at least six innings a game.

He came along at a time the moribund Tigers looked like they’d not only match, but exceed the depths of the 2015 season, and helped keep the Tigers afloat as key offseason addition Jordan Zimmermann was lost to injuries.

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Sanchez, too, came along just as we’d all written the Yankees off. He joined a .500 team apparently playing out the string after the trade deadline and helped them get right back in the wild-card hunt by mid-September. At one point in August, he hit nine home runs in a 10-game period. In September, he hit five home runs across four games. And lest Jim Price let you forget, catcher’s a pretty important position.

Is that more or less impressive than what Fulmer has done? You can be the judge there.

What both players might have benefited from during their incredible rookie peaks is a league that needed time to adjust to them. For Fulmer that’s meant a more pedestrian 3.95 ERA in the 11 games since his peak. He was due to come back to Earth. Nobody’s that good.

And while Sanchez’s numbers are still good in September, he’s at least descended a bit, too. He just went 0-for-4 for the third time in four games on Sunday.

How do you compare a good pitcher and a good position player? It’s difficult. Some would suggest Sanchez has played in more games. Others would tell you Fulmer matters much more in the games he makes an appearance in because he’s thrown 2,396 pitches to the 628 batters he’s faced.

Sabermetrically minded people might be tempted to look at WAR, which still seems to struggle with comparing pitchers to position players itself, and will give you radically different answers about whether Fulmer or Sanchez is better depending on whether you look at Fangraphs’ version or Baseball Reference’s.

Fulmer is either the league’s 16th-best pitcher (Fangraphs) or its sixth (Baseball Reference), and better than Chris Sale. Sanchez has either been the league’s most valuable catcher, or, well, OK. Sanchez has definitely been the league’s most valuable catcher, playing in just a third of the season.

Whether you think Sanchez becomes a better candidate for doing all that in just two months, or a worse one for playing just two months, dictates who you think should win the award.

Take nothing away from either player. They’re both great. But pitching for nearly the entire MLB season and doing so at a level high enough to win the ERA title just sounds a little more impressive to me than a really good two months.

Sanchez did something really special to close strong at the end, but the award should still belong to Fulmer for what he did over an entire season.

Kurt Mensching is the editor of Bless You Boys, a Tigers blog ( He can be reached at