White Sox pitching prospect finished 2017 campaign in solid fashion. What can fans expect from the 2015 first round draft pick in 2018?
I’m a Chicago White Sox fan living on the West Coast, and my quest in following the team is to watch and observe. I’m sort of like a deaf person who can’t hear what’s going on so they compensate by watching more closely. And my real job is working to identify trends and predict outcomes, so this is how my brain works anyway.
Last year I watched and observed a few things about Sox rookie, Carson Fulmer. He was the team’s first-round draft pick and eighth overall in the 2015 draft. He was the star pitcher of Vanderbilt University helping them to win the 2014 College World Series and finish runner-up in 2015. As a prospect, Fulmer represented top pitching talent who with a mid-90’s fastball and a hammer curve. Oh yeah, and then there’s his competitive spirit.
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When he was drafted, optimism abounded for fans and team alike and by most accounts, he seemed a sound pick. General Manager Rick Hahn had not yet made his “mired in mediocrity” declaration, and Chris Sale was still the team’s best player. It was noted that Fulmer, like Sale, is from Lakeland, FL. The commonality in their background became highlighted, and Fulmer expressed his giddiness joining the team just as Sale expressed a veteran perspective and enthusiasm toward the comparison.
Fulmer appeared happy, the team appeared happy, and fans appeared happy. Then the “We’re mired in mediocrity…” comment happened, and shortly after Soxland would never be the same. Sale was traded to Boston last offseason for Yoan Moncada, Michael Kopech and others in a blockbuster move that signaled the team’s new commitment and an eye toward the future. The Adam Eaton trade followed returning top pitching prospects Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez, and Dane Dunning.
Suddenly the baseball world looked at the talent that was being amassed by the Sox and began heralding the strength of the farm system. And as a result, the ranking of the youngsters in the farm system began to change. In the 2017 MLB.com Top 100 Prospects rankings, Moncada joined the team as the top-rated minor leaguer in all of baseball, followed by Giolito at no.3, Kopech at no.30, and Lopez at no.38.
Fulmer ranked no. 42 on that list for 2015 and no.58 for 2016. Suddenly, there were four players not with the team before his drafting now suddenly ranked ahead of him according to MLB.com – and he was dropped from the list after ranking in the Top 60 prospects the previous two seasons.
I believe the sea change of culture in how Sox fans thought about the season and their players before the declared rebuilding effort as compared to after weighed on Fulmer. After a solid Spring, he started strong at Triple-A Charlotte. Fulmer was eventually called up for a spot start in the second game of a doubleheader on Aug. 21 but the results were unimpressive: six earned runs in 1.1 innings and a loss to Minnesota.
Fulmer was optioned back to Charlotte where he made just one start before coming back to the Sox in September. In his final start for the Knights, Fulmer would pitch just four innings and gave up six earned runs.
Fulmer doesn’t have a herky-jerky or weird delivery. It’s just really fast to the degree it can look painful. Combine that fast motion with a fast pace and the urgent approach of an aggressive competitor, and the result can be predictably predictable. Hitters may feel they are almost facing a pitching machine and poise for the next prompt offering while locking in their timing.
I began to think this may have been what affected him negatively in that spot start against Minnesota: working so quickly that Twins hitters simply locked in on a fast-paced rookie who may have been pressing.
Fulmer was called up a second time on Sept. 2. This time he appeared to be much more focused and to be frank a little ticked off. He celebrated his return by delivering two crisp relief outings in which he gave up a combined two hits, one earned run, one walk and three strikeouts over 4.2 innings pitched.
He then got his second chance to start again on Sept. 10 against San Francisco. Fulmer pitched a stellar six innings while allowing three hits, one earned run, three walks and nine strikeouts while notching his second win and first as a starter. He followed that outing with an equally start against Detroit, in which he lasted six innings again while giving up four hits, one earned run, one walk, and five strikeouts. He closed out the season by beating Corey Kluber and red-hot Cleveland with five innings of three-hit ball with no earned runs against two walks.
The most revealing component for me was watching his behavior in pitching that final start against Cleveland. His delivery was still quick, but he slowed his overall pace, working slowly and forcing the opposition (as well his own team) to wait on him. He appeared confident and deliberate, circled the mound between pitches, and walked measuredly around the infield between hitters. I actually thought that he may have taking a page from fellow rookie Gioloto – who at times can appear so cool and collected that I think he could take a line drive to the cup and not react.
Fulmer finished the season with a record of 3-1 and a respectable ERA of 3.86 and WHIP of 1.24. However, that doesn’t tell the full story – one that suggests progress. Tossing out the outlier events of his first star and his short outing on Sept. 21, his record was 3-0 while his ERA drops to 1.64 and WHIP to 1.00. Even more revealing are comparison’s I did between Fulmer’s rookie 2017 season and that of Jack McDowell in 1987. Yes, McDowell. Take a look for yourself.
Here are each pitcher’s full September numbers (Fulmer’s numbers exclude the August Disaster Start: McDowell’s numbers include one October start):
And for context to the starting pitcher discussion, here’s how Fulmer’s September starts compared to those of McDowell (including October 1, 1987):
Simply put, Fulmer’s numbers are on par with McDowell’s…both of which were stellar for any pitcher, especially rookies in their early 20’s just kicking off their professional baseball careers.
I’m hoping fans and writers can give this kid a break because he just turned 24 and is top tier talent. That said, I think this guy is as smart as he is competitive – Vandy doesn’t turn out dummies – and that little extra chip on the shoulder may well be something he learns he can harness to his advantage. In 2018, he like Giolito and Lopez should get as many innings as possible without risking injury to keep their development going. The more they do, the sooner the better the Sox will be.