Detroit Tigers right-hander Michael Fulmer just wants some time away from baseball.
For a pitcher who went 22 months without making a big-league appearance due to knee surgery and Tommy John surgery, that might not make much sense. But he started his rehabilitation throwing program Nov. 11, 2019, roughly seven months after his surgery.
He is now in his 10th month of pitching.
“I’m one of the few guys in MLB, probably baseball in general, to not have any real time off during this quarantine that we had earlier this year,” Fulmer said Friday after the Tigers’ 1-0 loss to Cleveland at Comerica Park. “Nor did I want it. I wanted to make the Opening Day squad and really try to prove myself again and show that I’m healthy and ready to go.”
[ Fulmer desperate to back up statement: ‘I felt good’ ]
Manager Ron Gardenhire never expected him to return to his 2016 AL Rookie of the Year form. His request from the end of July’s summer camp was to make efficient three-inning starts and prepare for a normal 2021 season.
Fulmer thinks this plan will pay off in the long-term.
“I feel like I know how to manipulate the ball a lot better, as far as spin, especially on the fastball,” Fulmer said. “Cut here, a little sink there. The command is a lot better going forward, as well. The past few starts have been a lot better, more efficient mechanics, less stress on the body. I think velocity ultimately comes back next year.”
Fulmer is nine starts into the shortened campaign, and in the last two outings, his body has told him he could have pitched deeper into games.
He thought he could’ve done so Friday. He threw three scoreless innings, only allowing one hit and one walk with two strikeouts. Still, Gardenhire wouldn’t give Fulmer the opportunity; he wants to protect him.
[ Tigers still trying to uncover best role for ‘raging bull’ Daniel Norris ]
“He was smiling from ear to ear,” Gardenhire said Friday. “Your next question is going to be, ‘Did you think about sending him back out there?’ And I’m going to tell you, ‘No.’ He had a clean inning. That’s exactly what we wanted him to do and have that guy actually feel what it’s like. That was great.”
That’s an indicator of progress.
Outside of his first-inning strikeout of Cesar Hernandez with a wipeout 87.9 mph slider, Fulmer didn’t have swing and miss stuff (only three swinging strikes). What he was able to do was paint the corners with superb command and induce weak contact. He needed 24 pitches in the first inning, eight in the second and 12 in the third.
His fastball only averaged 92.5 mph, but that’s another part of his plan.
[ Casey Mize inspired by Indians’ Shane Bieber: ‘That’s the player I can be’ ]
“I tried to be the old me, as far as hitting 96s, 97s my first few starts, and those didn’t go too well,” Fulmer said. “Kind of all over the place, fastball up, walking the house and not getting many soft contacts. … I just have to work with what I have. Tonight, I didn’t want to overdo it and reach back for those 95s, 96s. It just goes to show that when I need 94, it still works. It’ll just make me a better pitcher this year.”
Fulmer isn’t anywhere near a finished product. He has an 8.71 ERA with 20 strikeouts and 12 walks in 25⅓ innings. His three scoreless outings look good, but they’re offset by two starts with four runs and a pair of five-run performances.
Because Fulmer isn’t pitching deeper into games, there isn’t a way to truly evaluate him.
That won’t come until 2021.
But amid a year of many changes, he is finally putting the pieces together.
“It’s been a long year, and we’ve worked extremely hard,” Fulmer said. “The training staff and strength and conditioning staff have been incredibly important to my rehab. I can’t thank them enough. But after this year, I’m ready for a couple months off of not throwing.”
Evan Petzold is a sports reporting intern at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold. The Free Press has started a new digital subscription model. Here’s how you can gain access to our most exclusive Detroit Tigers content.