Detroit Tigers’ Michael Fulmer lights up radar gun, blossoming in new role as key reliever

Detroit Free Press

Detroit Tigers manager AJ Hinch joked that he doesn’t want to round up.

But because of the pure dominance from right-hander Michael Fulmer in late-inning situations, the 28-year-old probably deserves an extra one-tenth of speed on his called strike in Friday’s 7-5 win over the Kansas City Royals.

Fulmer fired a 99.9 mph four-seam fastball to Nicky Lopez for a 3-2 count before he flied out to left field for the second out in a scoreless ninth inning. He struck out Michael A. Taylor looking with a slider for the first out. Then, he got Whit Merrifield to ground out to earn the fourth save of his career.

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“That was kind of a surprise,” Fulmer said Saturday about his velocity. “I wish I could say we tweaked something and that’s what it’s going to be from now on because it’s not. I think it was just one of those things. I was amped up, ready to get our team a win. It just kind of came out.”

That has been the story for Fulmer this season: He is electric out of the bullpen, especially in high-leverage situations.

“He’s really responded to the challenge of being a late-inning reliever, adrenaline is on the line, the game is on the line,” Hinch said. “He’s always been a strike-thrower. I think that’s key when you’re in the back of the bullpen. And the stuff has taken off.”

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What Fulmer accomplished Friday included two career-high marks in his five MLB seasons, plagued by knee surgery and Tommy John surgery. He averaged 96.5 mph with his 12 pitches for his highest average pitch velocity in an outing. (His previous high was 94.6 mph on June 23, 2017, against the San Diego Padres.)

His 99.9 mph fastball to Lopez was the hardest pitch of his 101-game career. (His previous best was 99.2 mph on June 8, 2018, against Cleveland.)

“It’s just trust, it’s conviction,” Fulmer said. “Last year, trying to pitch at 92-93 (mph) because that’s all I had at the time didn’t work out well, because I really never had to do that before. Do I think if the velocity was still down the way it was last year, I would have figured it out? Absolutely. But it’s a lot easier when I can trust myself, trust my body and let loose on everything.

“I think the command will be better because of it as well. Instead of just trying to place it here, it’s picking a spot, picking your target and trusting it, throwing full conviction to that target. That’s just the biggest thing for me right now.”

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In 12 games as a reliever, Fulmer has a 1.89 ERA across 19 innings this season. He has three walks to 23 strikeouts, allowing four earned runs. In four games as a starter, he owns a 4.97 ERA, five walks and seven strikeouts in 12⅔ innings.

Fulmer transitioned to the bullpen for the first time in his career in spring training. The suggestion was made by Hinch, pitching coach Chris Fetter and assistant pitching coach Juan Nieves.

“I’d always like to be back in the starting rotation,” Fulmer said, “but I look at it this way: Matthew Boyd is pitching the best baseball of his career. Casey Mize is a stud. (Tarik) Skubal is coming along really well, had a positive start his last time out. Obviously, (Spencer) Turnbull’s no-hitter, he’s trending in the right direction, I think. And Jose (Urena) is always Mr. Consistent in giving our team a chance to win.

“Those are five guys right there that no matter who takes the ball as a starter we have a chance to win that day. Just excited that I can be a small part of it.”

The Tigers’ starting rotation has a 3.92 ERA, the 12th-best mark in baseball. The bullpen has struggled but is showing improvements — thanks to Fulmer, Jose Cisnero and Gregory Soto — by delivering 11 consecutive scoreless innings entering Saturday.

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Hinch won’t rule out Fulmer returning to the starting rotation.

“I don’t ever want to put limitations on a player,” Hinch said. “He’s answering every challenge. As a long-term view of him, any role is open. He can do anything and be pretty successful. This version of him has been very dominant.”

Fulmer is finding his stride as a reliever. Every outing seems to push him toward becoming the defined closer. He has the mental strength to handle the pressure, and his willingness to do anything for his team to win makes him an asset.

For now, Fulmer is right where he needs to be.

“It’s just the adrenaline,” Fulmer said. “There’s nothing like coming out in late innings and being able to hold a lead or hold a tie. It’s really something fun to do that I’ve never really had the luxury to experience before. But I’m just happy to be able to go out and do my job.”

Evan Petzold is a sports reporter at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold. Read more on the Detroit Tigers and sign up for our Tigers newsletter

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