| The Detroit News
Detroit – When he was bigger, when his weight got up over 220 pounds, Tigers right-hander Michael Fulmer felt stronger, his fastball and sinker were firmer and heavier – 95-97 mph. But then his right knee, the one he uses to push off the mound, blew out in 2018.
Last year, after missing 2019 coming off both knee and Tommy John surgeries, Fulmer decided to shed some weight, maybe take some of the stress off his body. He came back at 210 pounds, which was great for his knee and his general fitness, but he didn’t feel like he had the same strength or power – his fastball velocity was down to 92-94 mph.
With the injuries well behind him now, Fulmer, who on Tuesday signed a one-year, $3.1 million contract, is on a mission to end this identity crisis. Actually, he’s on a mission to reclaim his 2016-2017 identity.
“It’s a fine line between pitching with old mechanics and an old body frame and trying to take those old mechanics to a new frame,” said Fulmer in a Zoom session Thursday. “I’ve had to learn to combine the strength and power with explosiveness.
“I think we’re starting to figure it out. I’m just trying to find myself again.”
Fulmer, the 2016 American League Rookie of the Year who is still only 27 years old, called the 2020 season “an embarrassment” for him. Understandably.
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Coming off Tommy John surgery in a year when minor league baseball was shuttered by the pandemic would be sub-optimal for any pitcher. Instead of building up his arm strength over a series of minor-league rehab starts, Fulmer’s rehab ended up being 10, three-inning-maximum, in-season, big-league starts.
His arm strength wasn’t fully built up at the start, and with the innings restrictions in place, he wasn’t able to build any strength through the season. Not only was his velocity down, but the spin rates on his four-seam and two-seam fastballs were down more than 100 rpms from 2018, and the spin rate on his slider was down nearly 200 rpms.
“I had a lot going on with my body,” said Fulmer, who ended up with a ballooned ERA over 8.00. “I thought I was 100 percent. Everything felt good, but everything felt just a little off, too. My timing in my delivery, my arm strength wasn’t built up.
“It was just tough how the season played out, just going three innings. It’s hard to train your body that way. Just didn’t have enough reps to get everything going again.”
That was then.
Flash ahead to now. Fulmer, in his first off-season at home in Oklahoma in three years, did absolutely nothing except be with his family for the month of October. After spending the last two off-seasons in Lakeland in arduous rehab programs, which continued even through the COVID-19 shutdown, that was a well-deserved break.
“When November hit, I felt like a new man,” he said.
Since November, he has been working out at a new facility in his hometown, weight training and conditioning, five days a week. He started his throwing program the first week of December. He’s sent videos to new pitching coach Chris Fetter and already gotten back some pointed tips.
“Just from an analytics stand-point, I know that’s what he’s known for,” Fulmer said. “I’ve never been that guy to get into those things, but I am trying to get into it a little more. I think he’s a perfect fit for this pitching staff.”
Fulmer had just finished a bullpen session when he hopped on Zoom Thursday.
“I didn’t throw as much as I thought I would last year, as far as off the mound or innings,” he said, explaining the early start on his pitching program. “Tommy John’s got a strict throwing program and schedule. I just didn’t get those competitive reps I thought I needed last year, so I wanted to throw off the mound early this year.
“And do long toss. I couldn’t focus on that last year. Just being healthy now, it’s incredible how I can actually get my body in a more powerful position and get it to do things like I used to.”
His weight is at 220 and climbing. Good weight, he was quick to point out.
“I’ve never in my life tried to gain weight,” he said. “I’ve always been a bigger guy. But after losing all the weight and trying to get back (after the surgeries), it’s really difficult to gain weight back. But I am getting there.
“Ultimately I just felt like I didn’t have the strength I did before.
Whether that brings the fastball velocity all the way back to 96-97 mph, whether it puts the bite back in his slider, remains to be seen. But that is the hope, to get those pitches back in form to go along with the cutter he learned late last season from former pitching coach Rick Anderson.
“I’ve already fixed some things and I am able to put my body in a better position now, in January, as opposed to last season,” Fulmer said. “I already feel better off the mound than I did all of last year.”
That’s got to be heartening for new Tigers’ manager AJ Hinch, who, despite going to college at Stanford and making Houston his base, grew up in Oklahoma, just 30 minutes from Fulmer’s hometown.
“He’s an Okie,” Fulmer said, laughing. “I know he claims that. We went from one Okie manager (Ron Gardenhire) to another.”
Hinch has penciled Fulmer into the rotation, along with Matthew Boyd, Spencer Turnbull and newly-signed Jose Urena. But Fulmer knows it’s on him to prove he can hold that spot.
“My expectation is to make every start, again,” Fulmer said. “I want to be that workhorse guy again and I want to win games for this ballclub. Last year I wasn’t able to do that, but I want to be back to being that guy who takes the ball every fifth day and goes deep into games.”
The Tigers would very much welcome that guy back.