Why Detroit Tigers’ Michael Fulmer is happy to pack on the pounds this offseason

Detroit Free Press

Evan Petzold
| Detroit Free Press

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When Michael Fulmer’s frustrating 2020 season concluded, the Detroit Tigers right-hander took a break. He returned to his home in Oklahoma to be with his wife, Kelsey, and son, Miles.

And, of course, to remove himself from baseball.

Before taking October off, the 27-year-old had been recovering from Tommy John surgery for roughly two years. He made the Tigers’ Opening Day roster in July, but his limitations made it less of a career revival and more of a prolonged rehab.

“I thought I was 100%,” Fulmer said Thursday. “Everything felt good. Also, everything felt off, whether it was timing in my delivery or arm strength not built up again.”

On Tuesday, Fulmer signed a one-year, $3.1 million contract, avoiding an arbitration hearing. With that out of the way, he is focused on meeting his pre-surgery expectations. His goal is, again, to make every start. In 2021, however, he wants to showcase a stronger version of himself after going from 210 pounds to 220.

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In 2020, Fulmer registered an 8.78 ERA, 2.060 WHIP, 20 strikeouts and 12 walks in 27⅔ innings. He made all 10 of his scheduled starts but the Tigers kept him on a three-inning limit in every outing.

“It was embarrassing for me,” Fulmer said. “But it was a weird year for everybody. Coming off Tommy John and not having a real rehab process, it was tough all the way around. … I feel stronger. I feel better. I feel healthier. The arm is bouncing back quite well. I’m able to do stuff now that I wasn’t able to do last year.”

Gearing up for this season, Fulmer is ecstatic about playing for new manager AJ Hinch, — a fellow Oklahoman — and pitching coach Chris Fetter, who focuses heavily on analytics. He has spoken to both coaches; he is already sending Fetter videos of him pitching.

He started his throwing program in the first week of December, much earlier than most pitchers. Why?

“I didn’t throw as much as I thought I would last year, as far as off the mound, innings,” Fulmer said. “I just didn’t get those competitive reps that I thought I needed last year.”

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The 2016 American League Rookie of the Year has made strength and conditioning his top priority. His fastball velocity averaged 93.2 mph last year, well down from 95.7 mph when he made the All-Star Game in 2017 and 95.8 mph in 2018, before knee and elbow surgeries.

Returning from those surgeries, Fulmer lost 20 pounds. He did so on purpose, hoping to drop enough weight to ease the burden on his right knee. But he lost some of his strength in the process.

“There’s a fine line between pitching with your old mechanics and your old body frame and trying to take those same mechanics to a new frame, a new body,” Fulmer said. “I have to learn to combine the strength and power with explosiveness. I think we’re starting to figure it out.”

Even if Fulmer rediscovers his strength, he knows his mechanics will need tweaking. Last year, former pitching coach Rick Anderson taught him a cut fastball, a pitch Fulmer plans to use moving forward. Fulmer picked up data about his command, but the trial-and-error process didn’t provide many complete answers.

Not yet, at least.

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“I’m just trying to find myself again,” Fulmer said, adding he will dive into the analytics of his mechanics with Fetter. “It’s always good to have a new set of eyes on you, no matter who it is. I always take advice and try it once. If it doesn’t work, it goes in one ear and out the other. You never know what’s going to stick.”

Fulmer remembers the 2016 and 2017 seasons, when he pitched 159 and 164⅔ innings, respectively. He got in 132⅓ innings in 2018 before his knee shut him down. Considering his past surgeries and the COVID-19 pandemic shortening the schedule, the Tigers had no reason to push Fulmer in 2020.

The organization believes in him, even if he never returns to the ace form he showed for three seasons after his 2015 acquistion from the New York Mets.

Still, he wants 2021 to be remembered as the season he rewrites his career trajectory.

And a lot of work needs to be done to get there.

“I want to be that workhorse guy again,” Fulmer said. “I want to go deep into games. I want to save the bullpen. I want to win ballgames for this club. Obviously, last year I wasn’t able to do that. But I want to be back to that guy. That’s my ultimate goal this year. And, hopefully, no inning limits. I think the body will tell me that before anybody else will.”

Evan Petzold is a sports reporter at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.

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