Right-hander Michael Fulmer is adjusting to a new role for the Detroit Tigers. He jogs out of the bullpen, passes through left field and crosses into the infield. It’s the journey relievers must take to get to the mound at Comerica Park.
For now, this is Fulmer’s path.
He is a relief pitcher, despite his first 85 MLB appearances coming as a starter. He came out of the bullpen in the regular season for the first time Saturday in a 5-2 win against the Cleveland Indians. And his 86th career appearance as a big leaguer was exceptional.
Fulmer pitched a perfect seventh inning, held a one-run lead and got an ovation from the home crowd as he trotted into the dugout after throwing 14 pitches. Manager AJ Hinch was pleased, as well.
“Did I expect to be put in that situation for the first time? No,” Fulmer said before Sunday’s game. “Was I happy it happened? Absolutely. I kind of wanted to dive right off the deep end, not think and just try to do my job. I’m thankful for the situation (Hinch) let me throw in. It was different.”
The 28-year-old is back to full health after knee surgery in 2018 and Tommy John surgery in 2019. With the minor leagues canceled last season, Fulmer rehabbed in the majors — no simple task. He finished with an 8.78 ERA, 12 walks and 20 strikeouts in 27⅔ innings across 10 starts.
This spring, Fulmer tried to lock down his role as a starting pitcher but struggled to command his pitches and show respectable fastball velocity. He had to discover a new identity. Because of the past injuries, Fulmer isn’t the same player, or person, he was when he won the 2016 American League Rookie of the Year, or when he made the 2017 All-Star Game.
Coming out of the bullpen Saturday, Fulmer averaged 95.4 mph with his four-seam fastball — over 2 mph higher than his average in 2020. His sinker maxed out at 95.9 mph. His slider had extra bite.
Fulmer had seven strikeouts across four relief innings March 25 in spring training. Still, he doesn’t think his move to the bullpen has everything to do with his drastic improvements.
“I think we finally tweaked some things, getting down backside a lot more and ultimately just being a little more healthy,” Fulmer said. “It just finally clicked out of the bullpen. I’ve learned that I don’t need to do as much to get my body ready to go out and pitch as I thought I did. As a starter, you have your routine.”
[ Highlights from Fulmer’s outing March 25 ]
When Hinch entered the clubhouse Sunday, Fulmer immediately walked into his office to deliver a message: “I’m ready to go today.”
The mindset Fulmer offers is special, considering he has bought into Hinch’s plan. At the same time, he is learning how to enhance his repertoire and stay fearless against each opponent.
Although Fulmer wants to get back into the starting rotation, he is content with pitching out of the bullpen. “I’m happy to do whatever I can for this team to help them win,” he said. “If I can stay in the bullpen, that means our starters are doing extremely well.”
As a five-year MLB veteran, Fulmer’s approach sets an example for his teammates. With a new manager, not everyone is going to get to compete in their preferred role. Some players will face tough realities: demotions to Triple-A, position changes and midseason slumps.
Fulmer has set the framework for how to handle challenges.
“Him embracing this role and embracing this opportunity, and not taking the negative, is a great example to all players around the league,” Hinch said. “It’s pretty awesome to be at this level, and it’s even better when you can take the good out of every situation and make the most of it.”