Detroit – One big question going into 2021 has been answered in the affirmative for the Tigers. You can pencil Michael Fulmer’s name into the starting rotation – full-go, not as a three-inning opener.
Wait, you say. Are you serious? An 8.17 ERA, 1.97 WHIP in 25 innings, that puts him in the rotation for next year?
Not those numbers.
Look deeper. See his steady progression in the nine, innings-restricted starts this season after missing the last two seasons with knee and elbow surgeries and without a single minor-league rehab start.
The inconsistency was inevitable. But look deeper. See the smoother, more repeatable mechanics. See the increasing sharpness on all his pitches, particularly the four-seam, sinker and slider. See the way he’s hitting 94 mph on the radar gun without any extra exertion.
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Friday night, for the first time, the results reflected the progress. Three shutout innings against the Indians, one hit, one walk, an average exit velocity on the eight balls put in play of just 75.7 mph. He was spotting his four-seamer up and his two-seamer down. He was also cutting his fastball in on hitters’ hands and breaking bats.
He wasn’t the power pitcher he was in his Rookie of the Year season (2017), but he was a pitcher – a more complete pitcher.
“I’m not that guy right now,” Fulmer said Friday night. “Maybe next year. I do think the velocity will come back, but I’m not worried about it. I tried to be the old me, as far as throwing 96-97 mph, the first two starts and those didn’t go too well.”
Can you even imagine how difficult it was for Fulmer, at age 27, to accept an entirely different identity on the mound? To accept the reality that he could no longer just reach back and throw 97-mph sinkers at hitters for seven innings, that he had to command and sequence four pitches, that he had to game plan and study and learn how to expose and exploit hitters’ weaknesses?
Justin Verlander reached that epiphany, too, but at age 34.
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“Rick (Anderson, pitching coach) kept telling me, ‘This year is going to make you a better pitcher,’ and I 100 percent believe him,” Fulmer said. “I feel like I know how to manipulate the ball a lot better, as far as spin – especially on the fastball, a little cut here and little sink there.
“It’s just about commanding it better going forward. I have more efficient mechanics and less stress on the body. I believe the velo will ultimately come back next year, but I can work with what I have.”
Fulmer is by no means satisfied. He understands he is in a results-oriented business, and his gaudy stat line gnaws at him.
“From a results standpoint, it’s been a rough year,” he said. “I feel bad for that. I feel frustrated for that. But on the other hand, I do feel like every start is getting better and better, stuff-wise, command-wise, sharpness, late-breaking (movement). My main goal is to just miss barrels. I’m not trying to miss bats. I am trying to get efficient innings because I do want to get into the fourth inning and that’s how you do it.”
He needed just 44 pitches to get through his three innings Friday and he could have easily gone another inning or more. But Anderson and manager Ron Gardenhire set this plan to give him 11 three-inning starts this season – a kind of de facto rehab stint – and they were resolved to stick to it.
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“They are just trying to protect me,” Fulmer said. “I’m not going to argue with them. I trust Rick and Gardy both and I’m just grateful I’ve got the job I have right now, being able to pitch at this level after last year. I understand Rick and Gardy completely and I am grateful for everything they’ve done.
“We’ve worked extremely hard this past year and through the course of this season. Me and Rick have been at it every day, every bullpen for sure. These last two starts, (Friday night) especially, it’s starting to show out a little bit.”
After such a long, arduous road, fraught with all manner of doubt and anxiety, those three crisp and scoreless innings Friday had to feel like validation to Fulmer. It also had him looking longingly at this offseason.
“What I’m looking forward to is just some time off,” he said with a smile. “We started our throwing program on Nov. 11 for the Tommy John rehab program. This is month No. 10 of throwing. I’m one of just a few guys in the MLB, in baseball in general, to not have any real time off during the quarantine months.
“Nor did I want it. I wanted to make the opening day squad and I was really trying to prove myself again. I’m thankful for the opportunity I did get. But I’m ready for some time off. It’s been a long year and we’ve worked extremely hard.”