What Detroit Tigers’ Michael Fulmer thinks about coming out of bullpen

Detroit Free Press

LAKELAND, Fla. — Detroit Tigers manager AJ Hinch asked right-hander Michael Fulmer, a starter for all 85 of his career MLB games, what he thought about pitching out of the bullpen for Sunday’s spring training game.

Fulmer didn’t hesitate.

Yet he admits the conversation was a “swift kick in the ass” to improve.

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“Well, I’ve never done it,” Fulmer said Monday, adding he hasn’t served as a reliever since his years at Deer Creek High School in Oklahoma. “But anything that he thinks would help, or wherever he sees me, is fine with me.”

The 28-year-old wants to be in the starting rotation in 2021. But Fulmer, entering his fifth year in the majors, wants to make something clear: He would prefer to be in the bullpen with the Tigers than at the alternate training site in Toledo.

“Would I rather be a starter? Absolutely,” Fulmer said. “And I think I can get back to where I need to be with that. But if the best spot for me is in the bullpen, then I’m more than happy to go there as well, and I’ve referred that to AJ, too.”

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On Sunday, Fulmer entered in the fourth inning and used 39 pitches (26 strikes) across three scoreless frames in a 5-3 win against the Philadelphia Phillies. He didn’t want to act as a piggyback reliever, so Hinch decided not to tell him when he would pitch.

Hinch wanted to remove the pressure, and preparation, that comes with starting games.

“I didn’t do a single thing as far as trying to replicate my pre-start routine until the phone rang and they said I had the next inning,” Fulmer said. “I was very happy with the way the body was able to get going. Felt pretty good, just a little different.”

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The results were a success. Fulmer got three strikeouts, didn’t allow any walks and gave up just one hit — a ground-ball single to Luke Williams. His strikeouts came on a tipped changeup, swinging slider and swinging curveball.

Fulmer’s fastball velocity averaged 93.2 mph, and he mixed in all his pitches: nine sinkers, nine changeups, nine sliders, eight four-seam fastballs and four curveballs. He registered nine swings-and-misses, getting at least one whiff with each of his five offerings.

“I liked what I saw, and he accomplished everything that he wanted and we wanted,” Hinch said Sunday. “He did go out with a little extra something to prove. He wanted to show some conviction, let it loose and go attack hitters. And he did.”

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It was Fulmer’s best performance since coming back from Tommy John surgery. He underwent the procedure in March 2019 and rehabbed at the major-league level, because the minors were canceled, in 2020.

Last season, Fulmer was limited to three innings per game. He made all 10 of his scheduled starts — his only goal for the season — but had an 8.78 ERA, 2.060 WHIP, 12 walks and 20 strikeouts.

Because of the elbow surgery, Fulmer is a “different pitcher” and can’t simply reach the upper-90s with his fastball anymore, like he did when he won the 2016 American League Rookie of the Year.

“It’s pairing pitches together that I really haven’t paired before,” Fulmer said. “Usually, I was very basic with my pitch sequencing, and now I feel like it’s going to be harder for hitters to guess what’s coming or see what’s coming. I think we keep learning that way and try to mix as efficiently as possible.”

[ Tigers may have a decision to make on Michael Fulmer: Detroit or Toledo ]

Hinch isn’t sure if Fulmer will stick as a reliever.

“Not sure yet,” Hinch said. “We’ll talk as a group. We’ll also talk to him. We were just happy with what he did (Sunday), and it gives him something to build on. It also gets him feeling good going home tonight. That’s all that mattered.”

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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