Michael Fulmer is finding a home in the bullpen.
Whether he wants to be a starting pitcher or not, there’s no denying his dominance as a reliever for the Detroit Tigers this season. His trips out of the bullpen this season have brought a 2.92 ERA, three walks and 17 strikeouts in 12⅓ innings across six games.
Fulmer, 28, has operated in various roles throughout the team’s 34 games. Manager AJ Hinch doesn’t want to cement Fulmer’s long-term job description, but he notices something special is happening for the 2016 American League Rookie of the Year.
“To me, that’s just a valuable weapon to have in the ‘pen,” Hinch said Sunday. “His body is responding very well. His stuff has ticked up a little bit. I think he’s a closet adrenaline junkie and likes that moment when he can come in and get thrown in the fire.”
Last year, there weren’t many positives in Fulmer’s return from Tommy John surgery. He had a 8.78 ERA with 12 walks and 20 strikeouts in 10 starts — all of three innings or less, as part of the rehab protocol — and his fastball velocity averaged 93 mph.
Fulmer’s narrative has changed in the 2021 season because of his usage as a reliever. His fastball velocity now averages 95.5 mph; his changeup continues to improve. Opponents own a .297 batting average against his slider, but the pitch is bringing about soft contact (11 hits, all singles, in 37 at-bats) and strikeouts (11).
He is pitching with conviction for the first time in a long time.
And he might be falling in love.
“I told AJ I wanted to be thrown in the fire if I’m going to stay in the bullpen,” Fulmer said Saturday. “I’m happy. I really am. I’m just trying to do anything I can to help. Just going to keep doing my best to pitch effectively and efficiently. Whatever helps the team.”
On Saturday, Hinch went to Fulmer with the score tied at 2-2, the bases loaded and one out in the fifth inning against the Minnesota Twins at Comerica Park. Right-hander Jose Ureña, who had gone seven innings in each of his previous four starts, was crumbling.
Fulmer started to get loose as the bullpen phone rang. Pitching coach Chris Fetter — in the dugout alongside Hinch — was on the other end.
Assistant pitching coach Juan Nieves delivered a message.
“Get hot quick,” Nieves said.
“Everything happened so fast,” Fulmer said.
Once in the game, Fulmer needed just six pitches to get two outs and end the threat. Miguel Sano popped out to second base on a first-pitch slider, and Ben Rortvedt flied out to right on a slider on the fifth pitch of the at-bat.
Fulmer tossed an additional two scoreless innings, finishing with one hit, one walk, three strikeouts and zero runs over 2⅔ innings. The offense provided five runs in the seventh inning as the Tigers finished with a 7-3 victory.
“He’s got this adrenaline rush when he pitches,” Hinch said. “He’s very trustable, and I know he’s going to throw strikes. Him being able to lengthen the game was just as key as the first couple of outs he got. The game is different if he doesn’t get the first couple of outs, but I don’t know how we get to the finish line with as much as our bullpen has been used if he doesn’t bridge that gap.”
In Wednesday’s 6-5 win over the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park, Fulmer entered with one out and two on in the bottom of the 10th inning, just over 24 hours after he had started against the Sox and failed to get out of the first inning. This time, he relieved lefty closer Gregory Soto — struggling in his second inning of work — and got two outs once again. He ended the game with a strikeout on a 96.6 mph sinker.
It was Fulmer’s first career save.
“Just to be able to adapt and provide value wherever you can,” said rookie Casey Mize, who pitched six innings of one-run ball as Wednesday’s starter. “I respect that a lot about Mike, so it’s been a big learning experience for me that I’ve been paying attention to. I really like how he’s going about it.”
In four games as a starter this year, Fulmer has a 4.97 ERA with five walks and seven strikeouts in 12⅔ innings. But Hinch — and everyone else on the team — is taking notice of his relief work.
The results show Fulmer is valuable in pressure situations.
“Right now, if he’s going to keep pitching like this, with his kind of adrenaline and this kind of production, he’s going to get the ball in important spots,” Hinch said.
Soto a work in progress
At times, the results can be misleading.
Just check Soto’s numbers: He has a 3.14 ERA and 16 strikeouts in 14⅓ innings across 11 games. But he has allowed 16 hits, seven runs (five earned) and 10 walks. Entering in high-leverage circumstances, the hard-throwing 25-year-old works harder than he needs to.
His fastball, at 97-100 mph can get wild, forcing him to fall back on his slider to find the strike zone. Developing a strong slider is key to being the Tigers “closer of the future,” but he must be more consistent with his fastball.
“He hasn’t had good command and control recently,” Hinch said. “The fact that we’ve seen it before, and we’ve seen him very dominant, is proof to me that it’s simply a little tweak … and we can get right back to where he was.”
In Soto’s past three outings, covering 2⅔ innings, he has given up three runs (one earned) on five hits and four walks. That’s a lot of baserunners.
Hinch believes Soto can make an immediate adjustment to his ailing delivery with Fetter and Nieves.
“He has some timing mechanisms that we’ve tried to simplify,” Hinch said. “He’s a little quicker to the plate, the slide step, he starts to lift a little more. That creates some timing issues that he needs to corral in making sure he delivers the same release point and the same mechanics. It’s been a little off in the last couple of outings, where the timing is not synched up and his arm is either late or really early. His delivery is not synched up.
“As the count builds, and he needs to be a little more perfect and he dials back on his stuff, his stuff becomes a little less effective and you see more contact. I’m not sure which one feeds the other.”
Evan Petzold is a sports reporter at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold. Read more on the Detroit Tigers and sign up for our Tigers newsletter.