As has been detailed throughout Yankees universe, Michael King’s season-ending elbow injury suffered in Friday night’s 7-6 win over the Orioles dealt a massive blow to the Yankees bullpen. They will now have to find a way to replace the production of the second-best reliever in baseball, whether internally or on the trade market. Luckily for New York, there is no shortage of able relievers on non-contending teams, and the Tigers’ Michael Fulmer certainly fits that description.
2022 Stats: 36 games, 35 IP, 2.31 ERA (170 ERA+), 3.34 FIP, 23.3% K%, 12.3 % BB%, 0.7 fWAR
2022 Contract Status: Earning $4.95 million in third and final year of arbitration-eligibility. Free agent after 2023 season.
Fulmer burst onto the scene in his 2016 rookie season, going 11-7 in 26 starts with a 3.06 ERA (139 ERA+), 3.76 FIP, and 132 strikeouts in 159 innings pitched. The performance was enough to earn him AL Rookie of the Year honors over Gary Sánchez and his memorable run of 20 home runs in 53 games.
Fulmer followed that up with an equally impressive sophomore campaign, going 10-12 in 25 starts with a 3.83 ERA (117 ERA+), 3.67 FIP, and 114 strikeouts in 164.2 innings pitched en route to his lone All-Star nod. For context, among all qualified starters between 2016 and 2017, Fulmer placed 16th in fWAR (6.7) and 17th in ERA (3.45) and FIP (3.71). Not bad for a pitcher’s first two years in the Show.
Unfortunately for Fulmer, those two seasons represent the high point of his career rather than a launching point for greater success. Injuries derailed a once-promising big leaguer, with the righty undergoing ulnar nerve transposition surgery in his throwing elbow in September 2017 and missing time in 2018 with a left oblique strain followed by a surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his right knee.
The big blow came during spring training in 2019, when Fulmer tore his UCL and required Tommy John surgery, causing him to miss the entirety of that season. While he has not suffered injuries of that magnitude since, he missed short stints in 2021 with a right shoulder strain and a right cervical spine strain.
Rather than give up, Fulmer reinvented himself into a high-leverage reliever and is experiencing something of a career renaissance pitching in the back end of the Detroit bullpen. He is the owner of a 2.75 ERA (153 ERA+) and 3.42 FIP in 84 relief appearances totaling 104.2 IP across the last two seasons. He is striking out more batters than when he was a starter, albeit with an elevated 12.3 percent walk rate this year.
Fulmer’s average fastball velocity has steadily ticked up during his time in the bullpen, and at 94 mph is not far off from the heat he was throwing in his first two seasons. The slider is his bread-and-butter pitch at this point in his career, thrown over 64 percent of the time while getting batters to whiff on almost a third of their swings against the pitch. The breaker is a large part of why Fulmer sits in the 89th percentile or better in barrel rate, xBA, xSLG, xERA, and xwOBA.
It wouldn’t be the first time for the Yankees to show interest in Fulmer. Back in 2018, the Yankees briefly considered Fulmer for their rotation before turning to other options when the Tigers’ ask was rumored to be too high. It remains to be seen whether that interest will be reignited as the trade deadline approaches.
Look, it’s unrealistic to expect Fulmer — or any reliever on the trade market for that matter — to fill the King-sized hole at the back end of the Yankees bullpen. You just don’t replace the second-best reliever in baseball overnight. However, if he can perform better than Aroldis Chapman and Jonathan Loáisiga, he would be a solid add to the Yankees relief corps. It couldn’t hurt for Cashman to inquire about his availability.