Detroit Tigers discover new options with Michael Fulmer’s aggressive confidence

Detroit Free Press

There’s a world where right-hander Michael Fulmer is starting for the Detroit Tigers. Manager AJ Hinch is prepared to give him the opportunity in five days if Julio Teheran is unable to take the mound.

With the Tigers batting in the top of the first inning Friday, pitching coach Chris Fetter relayed a message to Hinch. He explained the tightness in Teheran’s triceps wasn’t getting any better throughout prolonged warmups. Unwilling to risk further injury, Hinch made a last-minute scratch.

“When you pull the pitcher right before the start of the game, it doesn’t feel good and it doesn’t look good,” Hinch said. “I’m not sure whether or not he’s going to be able to avoid any injured list time.”

[ Tigers’ Julio Teheran scratched with triceps tightness; Derek Holland starts ]

He turned the entire game, a 4-1 loss to Cleveland at Progressive Field, to three relievers: Derek Holland for the first 2⅔ innings, then Buck Farmer for 1⅓ innings and, finally, Fulmer for the last four frames.

Fulmer went four innings and stretched out to 68 pitches because of the uncertainty of Teheran’s status. It means Fulmer might return to his old stomping grounds in the rotation, even for a brief stint.

“That’s why I did it,” Hinch said. “We needed him to cover the game. We were still in the game. Ultimately, if something does push us to a decision in the rotation, I wanted him to be able to go 50-60 pitches.”

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Fulmer was OK with the possibility of returning to the rotation after his outing Friday: “If need be, yeah. Obviously, it’s not my call. I’ll do whatever AJ needs. But I feel like I’m good. I feel like I’ve learned a lot of stuff if I have to take that position.”

When Fulmer took the mound for his fourth inning out of the bullpen, it marked his longest outing since Sept. 9, 2018, against the St. Louis Cardinals, when he tossed 6⅓ innings. He missed the entire 2019 season recovering from Tommy John surgery and was limited to three innings in all 10 of his starts in 2020.

Last year, with no minor-league season, Fulmer was forced to rehab his right elbow at the major-league level. Deep down, it bothered him that he couldn’t pitch past the third inning. On Friday, he broke through the barrier.

“It’s a step in the right direction,” Fulmer said. “I felt strong going out for the fourth. After I came out, pretty tired, but I was glad I was able to get through all four there.”

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And Fulmer didn’t just wiggle his way through four innings.

His dominance brought back memories of his 2016 American League Rookie of the Year and 2017 All-Star campaigns. The 28-year-old gave up one run on two hits and no walks, with five strikeouts.

Fulmer’s fastball averaged 94.9 mph — a 1.9 mph improvement from last year’s average — and maxed out at 96.5 mph. In his final inning, he reached 95 mph, showing Fulmer can sustain his velocity, if he ever returns to the rotation.

“He’s really letting it go and not trying to place the ball in the strike zone,” Hinch said. “Everything plays off aggressiveness for him. He’s not a touch-feel pitcher. He has the ability to feel his way through the strike zone with breaking balls. But for the most part, his aggressiveness really does feed to the quality of his pitches.”

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His slider was electric, generating five of his nine swings-and-misses. He used is 26 times, the most of any of his pitches. He also fired 16 sinkers, 12 four-seamers, 11 changeups and three curveballs.

Although Fulmer relied heavily on his slider Friday, especially toward the end of the game, the mix of his top four offerings — sinker, slider, four-seam and changeup — has been balanced since moving to the bullpen.

Trusting his entire repertoire is a byproduct of his confidence.

“The way he is out there right now, he’s very confident in himself,” Holland said. “He trusts everything that’s going on. He believes in it. There’s no second guessing. He’s pitching with conviction. That’s what you want. He’s working his ass off for it.”

Through three games and seven innings in 2021, Fulmer has a 2.57 ERA, zero walks and 10 strikeouts. For comparison, he had an 8.78 ERA, 12 walks and 20 strikeouts in 10 starts (27⅔ innings) last season.

But that’s in the past.

And Fulmer is focused on showing his rejuvenation, whether he rejoins the starting rotation or sticks in the bullpen as a versatile reliever.

“Didn’t really feel strong last year, or super explosive,” Fulmer said. “It just goes to show the stuff we’ve worked on, the stuff we’ve tweaked and the hard work is paying off. It’s been a blessing, and I’m honored to be where I’m at now.”

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

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