Lakeland, Fla. — The admission came toward the end of his post-game Zoom interview.
Michael Fulmer went immediately into the weight room after his somewhat erratic, somewhat encouraging start in the Tigers 7-4 spring loss to the Yankees at Joker Marchant Stadium on Tuesday. He first needed to blow off some steam.
“Let’s be honest,” he said. “I’m a different pitcher than I was a few years ago. There is no denying that.”
That admission could be the first real step toward positive recovery for Fulmer, who is in his first full season back after major knee surgery (2018) and then Tommy John surgery (2019). He clearly isn’t the power pitcher he was in his Rookie of the Year season in 2016. But as recently as his previous start in Dunedin on March 11, he was still trying to throw elevated fastballs (at 92-93 mph) by Blue Jays hitters.
Fulmer was a very different type of pitcher against the Yankees. He threw 17 change-ups, 14 sliders, 12 four-seam fastballs (92-mph average), 11 sinkers (93) and nine curveballs. He didn’t throw a curveball until his 10th hitter against Toronto. He threw one on his second pitch Tuesday.
“I’m not just saying this, but I feel like I’m getting closer and closer,” he said. “I’m trying different things in every start to see what sticks and what doesn’t…My body feels great. I’m just trying to learn (pitch) sequencing, the ins-and-outs, the up-and-downs, the different quadrants of the strike zone I usually don’t work on.
“I’m trying to get a better mix with the curveball and changeup. Today was good and I’m encouraged about going forward.”
The game results still aren’t there. He gave up very little hard contact, but missed very few bats (four swings and misses). He allowed three runs on four singles with three walks and two hit batsmen. He didn’t get an out in the third inning and left the bases loaded.
“He was erratic as the outing went on,” manager AJ Hinch said. “I know he’s really hard on himself because of the expectations he’s put on himself. Even though he was just off the plate on a few and he just nicked (Derek) Dietrich on the elbow (his last batter), it felt like it was spiraling downhill on him.”
Lefty Derek Holland rescued the inning, though. Striking out left-handed hitters Mike Tauchman and Tyler Wade and getting lefty Rob Brantly to ground out.
Still, 63 pitches and just 32 strikes in two innings plus five batters isn’t going to cut it.
“I need to be better, obviously,” Fulmer said. “But today was encouraging. When I came out of the game, I was frustrated as all get-out. But I came in and got a lift in to kind of let some of that frustration out. And I just think today was a lot better. The things I can control were a lot better.
“Instead of trying to throw pitches up in the zone and leaving them in the middle, I commanded the ball better. My misses were better. I kept guys off-balance…Encouraging for myself but the results weren’t there and I need to be better with the results”
He’ll have at least two more starts this spring, but he’s becoming a concern point for Hinch and pitching coach Chris Fetter as they try to determine which five or six starters they will bring north in two weeks. It’s likely the Tigers will begin the season with five starters and add the sixth later in the month of April when the schedule thickens.
Fulmer is just shy of five years of service time, which would allow him the option not to accept a demotion to Triple-A. The Tigers could option him to Triple-A Toledo within the first two weeks of the season without his permission. But that doesn’t seem to be the direction they want to go.
As it stands right now, and it’s fluid, Matthew Boyd and Spencer Turnbull are veritable locks. Jose Urena signed a one-year, $3.25 million deal this offseason and is also likely to start in the rotation. Tarik Skubal, who will start Wednesday in Clearwater, has been arguably the Tigers best starter in camp. That leaves Fulmer in a battle with Casey Mize and Julio Teheran, who is in camp as a non-roster invitee.
“Honestly, I feel like I’m competing for a job,” Fulmer said. “We’ve got so much depth in the starting pitching department. And that’s the way I want it to be. I want to be able to earn a spot. Nothing is given. That’s what AJ said in his first day here, which is awesome. Good competition is good for the team.
“But I feel encouraged. He knows that it’s been three starts. Each time out has been trying something new. What’s working is going to stick and what doesn’t is not. I have a few more starts to get everything together.”
One other possibility is for the Tigers to use Fulmer as a bulk reliever for the first few weeks while he continues to build himself back up. Then, if the results warrant, he could transition into the sixth starter. But that’s a decision for a later date.
“We’ll talk about it,” Hinch said. “We will take a look at everything. But I’ll turn to execution almost 98, 99 percent of the time when we talk about pitching. Whether you are just missing or you are all over the place, it’s putting you in bad leverage situations.
“Ultimately, it was not a good day for him.”