The American sage Kevin McCallister once spun a tale about the danger of holding something too dear. See, Kevin had a pair of rollerblades that were so nice, and he didn’t want to wreck them, so he kept them in the box. He was too cautious. Such is the plight of watching and valuing young starting pitchers. Often times it’s hard to enjoy watching young pitchers, expecting the eventual worst. We need to take young Kevin’s advice, hope for the best and try to savor the experience before the inevitable. Or something.
The 23-year-old Fulmer (turns 24 on March 15) has displayed a solid knack for limiting runs thus far in his professional career. He carried an ERA of 3.21 in five minor-league seasons before taking the AL by storm in 2016, en route to a sparkling 3.06 ERA in 159 innings. His 3.51 DRA indicates that his rookie campaign was speckled with a touch of luck, but the underlying numbers don’t necessarily point to severe regression. Fulmer surrendered almost one homer per nine innings, with an 11.2 percent HR/FB, again not necessarily unsustainable. He stranded 79 percent of runners that reached base, another number that hovered around league average. While he might not challenge for the ERA title again, he should still post solid numbers.
Nola broke onto the scene last season, posting a 3.59 ERA as a rookie in 77.2 innings. He was living up to his billing as an unspectacular mid-rotation starter without crazy upside. His 2016 was more confusing than the finish to the 2017 Oscars. Nola got off to a scorching start, dominating with a 2.88 ERA through May. He subsequently tanked and finished with a 4.78 ERA in 111 innings (cue: sad trombone), his struggles coinciding with right elbow issues. That final number should be viewed with all of the skepticism, however. The defense didn’t help Nola much, as the Phillies ranked 23rd in PADE. Batters earned a .334 BABIP when Nola was pitching, and over 40 percent of his baserunners scored, a number nearly 13 percentage points worse than league average. While the ERA was bloated, his DRA was 2.72, one of the best in the league. It would be easy to blame Nola’s poor season totals on injuries, and who knows, that could be correct. Add in the fact that he’s pitching in the easier league, and I’m optimistic. Advantage: Nola
Last season Fulmer had a knack for limiting baserunners, an especially impressive skill for a rookie. He issued fewer free passes than a long running CBS sitcom en route to a tidy 1.12 WHIP. There’s a distinct possibility that the number will see some rise next season, as it can partially be tied to a .268 BABIP. However Fulmer did limit hard contact as evidenced by an 89-mph average exit velocity (86.9 mph for grounders). If that skill carries over, Fulmer’s deflated BABIP totals could be somewhat sustainable moving forward.
As previously mentioned, much of Nola’s misfortune last season can be attributed to a hefty .334 BABIP, which led to him giving up nearly nine and a half hits per nine innings. This number seems especially high, considering he did a pretty great job of limiting how often hitters barreled up his offerings. Nola’s 2.5 percent barrels per plate appearance mark ranked in the top 15 for all starters. Despite the batted ball luck, Nola did manage to limit baserunners by walking only 2.35 batters per nine, a number comfortably better than league average. Advantage: Fulmer
If Fulmer’s capability to miss bats was a retail store it would be the Gap. It’s nice, serviceable, and more than functional, but there are nicer (and more expensive) options even within the organization. Last season opposing batters struck out in 20.4 percent of plate appearances, which is slightly below average. Fulmer’s changeup is filthy and a clear weapon. The pitch will get its fair share of whiffs, but it’s more likely to induce groundballs. It’s doubtful that Fulmer is ever going to be an elite strikeout artist, but he should be more than serviceable, providing affordable and fashionable options in the category.
Last season Nola leaned on his sinker and curveball a bit more, which turned out to be a great idea. He fanned almost two more batters per nine innings than he did as a rookie, notching almost 10 strikeouts per nine innings. Nola pounded the zone (50 percent), which helped pump his swinging strike rate up well above league average. By leaning on his better offerings and scaling back his four-seam fastball usage, Nola has emerged as a genuine strikeout asset. Advantage: Nola
Fulmer was a mini-workhorse, (sort of like Lil Sebastian) last season, making 29 starts, 26 coming with the big club. He tossed 174.1 innings overall, and while his numbers took a slight tumble in the second half, he still managed to stay durable, pitching into the seventh inning in eight of his final 13 starts.
After 187 innings across three levels in 2015, injuries cut Nola’s 2016 campaign short after only 111 innings and 20 starts. As mentioned earlier, he got off to a great start, but slowed in June, averaging only four and a third innings per start after May 31. When healthy, Nola has shown the ability to be a near 200 inning starting pitcher, but time will tell whether his barking elbow will allow him to maximize that potential. Advantage: Nola
Last year Fulmer won 11 games, nine of which came before the All-Star break. While his defense has been less than stellar, the Tigers’ offense remains relatively potent. The team ranked 11th last season in runs scored, and the core, while aging, will mostly return. Fulmer has also shown a knack to work deep into games, providing 15 quality starts in 26 outings (58 percent). If he can continue that success and potentially even build upon it, Fulmer could be a decent option in both the wins and quality start categories.
While the Phillies have reason to be excited for the future, their offense pales in comparison to their Detroit counterparts. Last season they scored 610 runs, which ranked, um, dead last in the league. Sprinkle in Nola’s blow-ups, and it’s a recipe for a meager six wins and six quality starts. Nola’s health will certainly play a huge role in determining these totals moving forward, as will the Phillies offense. For now, neither inspires a great deal of confidence. Advantage: Fulmer
Fulmer hasn’t always been a bastion of ideal health, but he’s trending in the right direction. After missing time in 2013 with a torn meniscus and surgery to clear out bone chips in his elbow, he has basically pitched a full load for a young starter over the last three seasons, culminating in his 174.1 innings last year. Obviously every pitcher is an injury risk, but Fulmer doesn’t appear to have more risk than anyone else.
This is the great question with Nola. When healthy, he showed the promise last season to be a near ace-level starting pitcher. Seriously. That said, he was shut down in July and missed the final two months of the season with a right elbow strain. Heading into the 2017 season, the 23-year-old Nola has declared himself 100% (whether he is in the #bestshapeofthislife is still unclear), and has already started his spring throwing program. I hope he’s right. Advantage: Fulmer
Both of these guys are great targets in dynasty leagues. Fulmer should provide stability and solid rates without killing your team in any category. However, with Nola you could be getting something special. Before his injury last season, he was in the midst of a breakout and showed true top of the rotation potential, and while it’s still risky potential, I’m not sure the same can be said about Fulmer.
And the winner is… Aaron Nola.