Carson Fulmer and Walker Buehler couldn’t have been more different when they set foot on the Vanderbilt campus in late 2012.
Fulmer came from Lakeland, Florida, and did his pitching at tiny All Saints Academy, an independent prep school with an enrollment of around 600. Buehler hailed from Lexington, Kentucky and was a star pitcher for Henry Clay High, the oldest and one of the largest public high schools in Lexington. Fulmer checked in at a mature 6-1 and 185 pounds, while Buehler was a lithe 6-2 and 160. Both dabbled in the showcase circuit, but Fulmer fit the power-pitcher stereotype, dazzling scouts with a mid-90s fastball, while Buehler showed better secondary pitches.
Their paths started to converge when they both committed to play for coach Tim Corbin at Vanderbilt. A few months later they were both selected in the MLB draft, in the 14th (Buehler) and 15th (Fulmer) rounds by the Pirates and the Red Sox, respectively.
Once on campus, they went their separate ways again, with Buehler eventually claiming a spot in the rotation while Fulmer found his niche in the bullpen.
During a magical sophomore year in which the Commodores claimed their first College World Series championship, Buehler was again a mainstay in the rotation, winning 12 games and racking up 111 strikeouts in 102.1 innings, while Fulmer bounced back and forth, making some key spot starts, but mostly proving himself a shut-down reliever. In addition to seven victories, Fulmer also picked up ten saves.
Fulmer made the permanent jump into the rotation this season, and the move became a pivotal decision once it was decided that Buehler, who had been battling some elbow soreness, wouldn’t be ready for opening day. Fulmer struck out seven in five innings of two-hit ball in Vandy’s opener and never looked back. By the time Buehler rejoined the rotation, Fulmer was entrenched as the Friday night starter.
Vandy finished the regular season 37-16 and Fulmer was a major reason why. In 14 starts, he locked down 11 wins, while holding down a 1.51 ERA. He racked up an obscene number of strikeouts and put together a 24-inning scoreless streak late in the year. Buehler also contributed, but he was often limited to four- or five-inning stints and he finished the year with just three wins and 3.14 ERA.
Prior to the season, Buehler received the majority of attention from scouts and draft experts, while Fulmer was considered a great talent, but strictly a reliever. His strong junior campaign not only turned several heads, but also catapulted him past Buehler in terms of draft stock. Towards the middle of the 2015 season he was already garnering top-10 pick consideration and fresh off his second 14-strikeout performance (and his second consecutive complete game) of the season he’s earned his first number one overall projection, from Baseball America no less.
Buehler, meanwhile, has started to slide down draft boards. Baseball America slotted him tenth to Philadelphia in their most recent mock draft.
So, who’s the better bet as a pro?
Let’s delve in to the details.
Fulmer gets a lot of love when it comes to his fastball, and for good reason. While the difference in velocity between the two pitchers isn’t that significant, the movement on Fulmer’s heater makes his mid-90s velocity seem devastating when he’s hitting his spots. He can also reach back for a little extra (96-99 mph), something he learned during his 52 appearances out of the Vandy bullpen. Buehler has been clocked as high as 96 mph, but he sits more comfortably in the 92-95 range.
Consensus seems to be that the changeup is the one pitch you can teach. If you happen to throw one coming out of high school or college, though, you’re just that much more ahead of the game. Neither Buehler or Fulmer throw more than 10-15 changeups per start, but it’s easy to tell that Buehler’s familiarity with the pitch is ahead of Fulmer’s, and that it will be a much more dangerous weapon for him. We grade Buehler’s future changeup as a 60, while we have Fulmer’s as a 50. That’s not to say Fulmer can’t improve upon that. It’s more an indication of our thinking that he’s likely better suited to a bullpen role than a starting one.
One of the reasons for Fulmer’s dominance this year has been the development of his curveball. There are starts, such as his last against Alabama, where it looks like a plus pitch that he has uncanny control of. In the past, during his relieving days or even during his transition to a starting role last year, Fulmer hadn’t thrown the pitch with as much confidence. He clearly knows that in order to make the transition to starting at the professional level he’s going to need his curveball to be an above-average offering. Instead of throwing one breaking ball with regularity,
Buehler has two, a slider and a curveball. He appears comfortable throwing both, although command of his slider appears to be a little ahead of the curve. While this makes him a more appealing long-term starter, neither offering is as impressive as Fulmer’s curveball.
This one is easy. Buehler has a smooth delivery with very little wasted motion. Fulmer on the other hand, pitches like a former reliever. He often appears to be putting a little extra into his pitches and as a result, has a tendency to overthrow. He has 18 wild pitches during his three years at Vanderbilt, with another 18 hit-by-pitches.
When he does take a little off his fastball, his delivery looks smoother, but this is part of the reason why Buehler projects as a starter long-term and Fulmer a reliever.
Fulmer appeared in 26 games as a freshman, 26 as a sophomore and 14 so far this season, logging 239.1 innings and so far has not had any health-related issues. Buehler had 16 outings, including nine starts, as a freshman, made 19 appearances as a sophomore and has 11 starts this year. In all, he’s pitched 228.1 innings, and the only ailment that has plagued him was the elbow soreness earlier this year. Some of that can probably be attributed to the fact that after he pitched 102.1 innings for Vanderbilt last year, he tossed more than 30 for the U.S. Collegiate National Team and Yarmouth-Dennis of the Cape Cod League. While it may be concerning to some that Buehler’s arm wasn’t able to handle the stresses of pitching almost 140 innings in one calendar year, keep in mind that most college pitchers don’t come anywhere close to eclipsing that kind of mark.
Lost in the Fulmer-mania of 2015 is the fact that Buehler was nearly as dominant in 2014. He had his fair share of double-digit strikeout outings and finished the season with more than nine strikeouts per nine innings. He was pretty solid during his freshman campaign as well, striking out nearly a batter an inning. For his career, he’s 19-6 with a 2.96 ERA and 9.2 K/9. Fulmer, however, has been downright brilliant at whatever role the coaching staff has thrown at him. What did he do when they wanted him to pitch in relief? He held batters to a .208 average as a freshman. What did he do when they wanted him to switch to starting halfway through the 2014 season? He went 5-0 as a starter and became the team’s best pitcher in the College World Series. What did he do when asked to anchor the rotation in 2015? He went 11-1 and struck out more than 12 batters per nine innings.
Four points to Fulmer and two to Buehler seems to give us a pretty clear cut winner, right? Not so fast. As a dominant reliever, Fulmer is always going to be tagged with the label and is going to have to prove himself as a starter all through the minor leagues and again at the Major League level. The fact that he was, once upon a time a weapon out of the bullpen is always going to be in the back of the mind of GMs, coaches and his competition, which means if he struggles, the impetus to switch him to a relief role will be very strong. If he can pitch as impressively as he has in 2015, showing the same determination and grit, and if his curveball can continue to shine like the plus offering that it is, his ceiling is vast. The other way things could go for Fulmer is that he can’t hack it as a starter, his curveball command is spotty against more experienced, talented hitters and he heads back to the bullpen. Does anyone really want to spend a top-five pick on a reliever? Buehler, on the other hand, is a career starter who has proven over the course of three years that he has what it takes to go through an order at least twice on a regular basis. He’s proven himself against top-notch competition in the SEC and has proven to be just as dominant, if not more so, than Fulmer when he’s locating his pitches. And while his breaking ball isn’t as impressive as Fulmer’s, the fact that he throws two, and has the superior changeup makes him a more likely bet to find more big-league success.
In the end, it’s a close call, but the relative “safety” of Buehler makes him the more appealing prospect. He seems more likely to stick as a starter at the big-league level, and to us, even a mid-rotation starter is more valuable, and more worthy of a first-round selection, than a reliever.