For the first time since June 14, 2018, Detroit Tigers right-hander Michael Fulmer walked out of a major-league ballpark as a winner. He pitched five innings against the Houston Astros in Wednesday’s 6-4 win, dispatching the first 11 batters he faced and giving up two runs.
Fulmer’s first win in 1,035 days didn’t come out of nowhere. The 2016 American League Rookie of the Year‘s performance was the culmination of many small victories along his baseball journey.
“It’s been a really long road,” Fulmer said Wednesday night. “I’m so thankful for the opportunity to still be able to go out there and do what I can to help this team win. It’s truly an honor to be at this stage in my career. I’m going to keep working. I’m going to keep getting better.”
The 28-year-old made his first start this season with the Tigers seeking a three-game series sweep. He came out of the bullpen for his three appearances but earned an opportunity to rejoin the rotation. Fulmer’s return to his old form might be here to stay, whether he moves forward as a starter or reliever.
“I just look at him as a pitcher,” manager AJ Hinch said. “He has this presence about him in general. When you factor that in, and the body language is quick, intense and very focused. … He went into attack mode.”
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Three years ago, Fulmer was a frontline starter for the Tigers.
Surgeries to his right knee and right elbow derailed his young career. He missed the 2019 season and struggled to become the same type of hard-throwing pitcher the Tigers acquired from the New York Mets in 2015.
The early stages of rehabilitation served as Fulmer’s first small victory.
Fulmer, an All-Star in 2017, returned to the Tigers for the shortened 2020 season and made 10 starts. But the results weren’t pretty, with an 8.78 ERA, 12 walks and 20 strikeouts in 27⅔ innings. He wasn’t allowed to pitch beyond three innings. His fastball averaged 93 mph.
“It was embarrassing for me,” Fulmer said this offseason.
Early in spring training, Fulmer struggled as a starter. Then, Hinch and pitching coach Chris Fetter moved him to the bullpen for the first time in his career. Coming into the season, he had started in all 85 appearances.
That’s when everything clicked, giving him his biggest victory yet.
“He’s really letting it go and not trying to place the ball in the strike zone,” Hinch said after Fulmer’s third relief appearance Friday against Cleveland. He tossed four innings and allowed one run with five strikeouts. “Everything plays off aggressiveness for him.”
What Fulmer showcased throughout his five innings Wednesday resembled what he has accomplished since coming out of the bullpen. Instead of saving his stamina for later in the game, he pitched with confident aggression from the beginning — filling up the strike zone to induce weak contact for 11 ground outs.
His threw 78 pitches (49 strikes) and his fastball reached 97.4 mph. While his opponent, Astros starter Lance McCullers Jr., took his time and got beat up by the Tigers’ surging offense, Fulmer worked as quickly as possible with catcher Wilson Ramos.
“It kind of became a game in itself to see how little time we could spend on the defensive side of the field,” Fulmer said. “Had a couple long innings there on the bench. Got a little tight after that, but I tried to do everything I could stay loose. But who am I to complain about some run support?”
He used 28 sliders, 20 sinkers, 15 four-seam fastballs, 12 changeups and three curveballs. He got nine swings-and-misses with four sliders, two sinkers, one four-seamer and two changeups, and earned 13 called strikes.
“His pace, his tempo, his rhythm, whatever word you want to put, it was all right for him,” Hinch said. “I liked that approach because he’s a sprinter, even in a starter’s role. He can get after it from pitch one.”
Fulmer showed signs of getting tired in the fifth inning when he allowed a two-run homer to Jason Castro. Hinch said Fulmer pitched as deep as he could before “the lack of buildup” got to him. He struck out Myles Straw for his final out.
The key for Fulmer is found within his fastball and slider usage. This year, he has thrown his four-seam fastball and two-seam fastball a combined 44.5%, relying on his slider for 35%. Opponents are 1-for-15 (.067) with eight strikeouts against his wipeout slider, which averages 89.2 mph compared to 87.6 mph last season.
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In 2020, Fulmer used his four-seamer and sinker 62.4% of the time, with his slider at 23.1%. He is throwing his changeup a bit more, as well.
“I’ve been encouraged with what I’ve been seeing,” Fulmer said. “The hard work that Fetter and I have put in has been great, and we’re just finally showing that it’s starting to pay off.”
As a result of the changes to his pitch mix, Fulmer owns a 3.00 ERA and 0.667 WHIP in four games with one walk and 12 strikeouts in 12 innings. And he is making a solid case to keep his job as a starting pitcher.
“Just getting back to who I am, or the potential that I know I have,” Fulmer said. “I’m just excited to be able to go out and try to win games for this team.”