Michael Fulmer's Twin debut was fun, but Tigers' futility against fastball flabbergasting
Minneapolis — He was thankful it didn’t happen on Tuesday. It would have been a lot for Michael Fulmer to be traded from the Tigers to the Twins about two hours before the game and have to pitch against his former mates the same night.
But he knew that moment was coming.
Sure enough, he was summoned into the game in the sixth inning of the Twins’ 4-1 win in the series finale over the Tigers Wednesday at Target Field.
"I think it's kind of funny his first outing was against us," Tigers starter Tyler Alexander said. "But I wish the best for him and he did well. Love the guy. Nothing but love."
It was business as usual for Fulmer, only in a red uniform. Protecting a one-run lead at the time, Fulmer got Javier Baez to ground out to short. He tipped his cap to his new shortstop Carlos Correa for his efforts.
Harold Castro poked a single to center, his third hit, and got a wry smile from Fulmer. He’d seen that before.
Next up was Eric Haase, who has caught Fulmer more than anyone except James McCann. Thus, it was a little surprising Haase stood looking at an elevated slider for strike three. It’s probably the same pitch he would’ve called if he was calling Fulmer's pitches in that spot.
With Willi Castro at the plate, Harold Castro tried to pull a fast one on his buddy. He broke for second before Fulmer started his delivery, trying to catch him napping. Didn’t. Fulmer stepped off the rubber and calmly threw Castro out at second.
He looked back at him as if to say, “What are doing?”
As awkward as it might have been, though, Fulmer wasn’t the Tigers’ chief problem on this day. It was Twins’ rookie starter Joe Ryan.
They seemed to have the right plan against him — hunt his fastball. He’s got a good one and he has thrown it 57.6% of the time this season. So the Tigers went into the box ready to attack heaters.
But readiness is only one part of the process.
Ryan threw his 91-92 mph fastball 62 times, 79% of his pitches over his five innings Wednesday. The Tigers swung at 41 of them, whiffing on 16 of them. They took 12 for strikes and the six they put in play had a mild average exit velocity of 74.6 mph.
They were ready for it. Just couldn’t hit it.
"He beat us tonight with fastballs in the zone," manager AJ Hinch said. "It's one thing to chase, it's another when you get beat in the zone."
Ryan bullied them. Eight of his nine strikeouts came off fastballs, all swinging third strikes.
"I don't know if perplexing is the right word," Hinch said. "Frustrating, obviously. Our guys can cover fastballs but we haven't handled it as well as we probably should or could. It's been going on for a while."
According to FanGraphs, the Tigers have a run value of minus-21.6 against fastballs. To compare, the Blue Jays are the best hitting team in baseball against fastballs, with a run value 75.7.
Ryan allowed three hits, two by Harold Castro. He pretty much gifted the one run on his ledger to the Tigers in the fifth, hitting both Willi Castro and Tucker Barnhart. Riley Greene cashed one in with a two-out bloop single to center.
"It's like an up-shoot kind of a deal," Greene said of Ryan's fastball. "When he throws it, it looks good and then there's something about it -- it's like it goes up. When he can locate it at the top of the zone like he did today, he's good.
"In my opinion, the fastball up, located at the top of the zone, is probably one of the best pitches a pitcher can throw."
The Tigers had just four hits and only three at-bats with runners in scoring position. They struck out 41 times in the three-game series.
"Today was the definition of being beat in the zone," Hinch said. "Ryan does have a carry fastball, so that's not uncommon for him. But it seemed pretty extreme today."
Wasted was another strong start from Alexander. He allowed two hits and two runs and struck out five. Both runs came on a two-out, two-run double by Twins’ new acquisition Sandy Leon.
"The first two innings were kind of a laser show," Alexander said. "I didn't execute very well. But the next three innings I executed very well. I thought Leon hit a pretty good pitch. Just part of it."
Leon lined a 1-1 cutter into the left field corner for a two-out, two-run single in the second inning. Alexander set down the next 10 batters he faced.
With Tarik Skubal going on the injured list, Alexander is likely to get an extended stay in the rotation.
"AJ told me he wants to build me up slowly, that's why I didn't get the sixth inning today," Alexander said. "Hopefully my leash gets a little longer and I can start going as many innings as possible."
The loss drops the Tigers to 22 games under .500. The trade deadline has come and gone. Instead of playing meaningful games the final two months of the season, the Tigers are back in the all-too-familiar mode of sorting out which players fit the plans for next season and beyond.
Hinch was asked if motivation might be an issue.
"If there is a problem motivating them, then it's on our staff and on me and quite honestly on the players," he said. "This is the big leagues. We should have more respect than having to be motivated. I don't expect it to be a problem."