TORONTO — The revitalization of Michael Fulmer is best understood once you see how he slid to the the lowest point of his baseball career.
Acquired in a 2015 trade deadline deal from the Mets for Yoenis Cespedes, he hit it big quick: 2016 American League Rookie of the Year, followed by a 2017 All-Star nod and the expectation of anchoring the Detroit Tigers‘ starting rotation into the future. His fastball averaged 96 mph; his slider and changeup devastated opponents.
In his early 20s, Fulmer was one of the best young pitchers in baseball.
Then came knee surgery in September 2018 and, before he could even pitch in a regular-season game, Tommy John surgery in March 2019 to reconstruct the ulnar collateral ligament in his throwing elbow. Goodbye, 2019 season. Upon returning, Fulmer posted an 8.78 ERA over 10 inning-limited starts in 2020. His fastball averaged just 93 mph, his slider wasn’t a punch-out pitch and his changeup was throttled to the tune of a .444 batting average. He felt embarrassed and questioned his future.
“I didn’t know if I would ever pitch again, honestly,” Fulmer told the Free Press this week in the dugout at Comerica Park. “It sucks. It really does. I’ve gone through years of rehab with the knee and the elbow. Those were really low positions in my life.
“To be able to contribute like this is really a dream come true. More than my debut, more than my Rookie of the Year, more than all that stuff is the feeling you get after you’ve fought so hard to get back to where you are now.”
One year after thinking his career was over, Fulmer is an elite member of the Tigers’ bullpen, called upon almost exclusively in high leverage situations. Consider a pair of his appearances during the Tigers’ recent homestand.
On Aug. 14, he jogged to the mound for the eighth inning against Cleveland as the song “Stick That In Your Country Song” by Eric Church boomed inside Comerica Park. The 28-year-old struck out Ernie Clement with a 92 mph slider and Myles Straw with a 91 mph slider for the inning’s second and third outs, respectively. The dose of relief was a step toward the Tigers’ 6-4 win in front of a season-high 32,845 fans.
The outing reinforced how Fulmer looks like his old self this season, albeit in a different role. He is back to averaging 96 mph with his fastball, which has topped out at 99 mph with movement, and his electric sliders produce strikeouts again. The right-hander boasts a 3.32 ERA, nine walks and 49 strikeouts in 31 relief appearances.
“I was at a low place in ’20,” Fulmer said. “It almost wasn’t as fun coming to the ballpark every day knowing this isn’t who I am as a pitcher. I tried my best. I really did. My wife and kids were great with it to keep my mind off it. Coming out after three innings and giving up a few runs in what felt like every outing was real tough to swallow.”
In his Aug. 17 appearance against the Los Angeles Angels, he pitched a scoreless seventh, with a pair of strikeouts. In a 3-1 count against Jack Mayfield, he went to his slider four times in a row — Mayfield connected with three for fouls — before striking out the infielder to complete his outing.
Of his 19 pitches, 14 were sliders.
“No matter what, your focus is on getting this guy right now,” Fulmer said. “Don’t think about the future. Don’t think about anything else. I threw 14 sliders. I didn’t care. I wasn’t going to face those guys again. I just wanted to get the outs. … As far as a tie game, you go to your best stuff that you think you can get the guy out with.”
So how did Fulmer go from a virtual liability in the rotation to a nascent relief ace? The righty broke down two situations this season that changed the trajectory of his career.
Confidence in Boston: ‘I can do this’
The first big moment of Fulmer’s revival occurred at Fenway Park in Boston.
He started the series opener on May 4 but couldn’t get out of the first inning, allowing four runs (two earned) on four hits and one walk. He only recorded two outs while throwing 33 pitches.
The next day, the Tigers had battled their way to a 6-3 lead in the 10th inning before Gregory Soto, in his second inning of work, gave up a run on two singles to put runners on the corners with one out. Manager AJ Hinch turned to Fulmer as the Tigers’ sixth pitcher of the night. He gave up an infield hit to make it a 6-5 game, but then retired the next two Red Sox — including a strikeout looking for the final out — to preserve Soto’s victory and earn his first career save. That milestone came less than a month after Fulmer had earned his first win since the 2018 season.
“Getting my first save was surreal,” Fulmer said. “I’ve never even thought about it. I never did it. That was pure adrenaline, but I was happy it happened. That’s the moment where I was like, ‘OK, I can do this. I just pitched back-to-back and I feel great. I can do this.'”
Fulmer credits Hinch and pitching coach Chris Fetter for his success.
“They never thought about quitting on me,” Fulmer said.
During spring training, Hinch and Fetter moved Fulmer from the rotation to the bullpen. Accepting the new role wasn’t simple. The lifelong starter originally saw it as a stepping stone back to the rotation.
A few months later, Fulmer fell in love with relief pitching.
“AJ’s talked to me about next year already,” Fulmer said, “and some different situations where I could be. I told him, ‘Wherever I can help the team win.’ I mean that to him. In this game, there are a lot of guys who want to be one thing or another or don’t want to give up on starting or relieving. For me, I’m just happy to be here. I just want to win.”
A strike zone lesson in Kansas City
Although Fulmer gained his confidence in Boston, it wasn’t until May 23, at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, that he learned how to pitch out of the bullpen. The Tigers asked Fulmer to protect a 2-1 lead entering the ninth inning.
After Whit Merrifield hit a single on the fourth pitch of the inning, Fulmer missed with a first-pitch slider to Carlos Santana for a 1-0 count.
“OK, I can’t go 2-0 to this guy,” Fulmer recalled thinking to himself on the mound. “He’s a dangerous hitter. I have to get 1-1 and even the count. I have to attack him. I have to throw him a strike, have to throw him a fastball. It’s the best pitch I feel I can throw for a strike in a quality location.”
MORE ABOUT FULMER: Michael Fulmer lights up radar gun, blossoming in new role as key reliever
BACK FROM INJURY: How Tigers reliever Michael Fulmer is approaching his return from injury
He fired his next pitch 97 mph down and away, opting for a four-seam fastball in hopes of stealing a strike. Based on previous matchups, he assumed Santana would think the pitch was a two-seam fastball breaking away from the strike zone. He didn’t think Santana would swing.
Instead, Santana crushed the ball to straightaway center for a walk-off home run.
“I was so pissed,” Fulmer said. “I’m literally sitting at my locker, hands on my knees thinking about what I could’ve done differently, and AJ comes up to me and goes, ‘That’s the bad part about closing, isn’t it?’ He had this smile on his face. I was angry, but he said, ‘Just be ready for tomorrow.’ That’s the good thing about being a reliever.”
When Fetter and Fulmer went over the blown save in Kansas City, Fetter told Fulmer, “Everyone wants to be the hero.” His lesson: When the game is on the line, hitters are more likely to swing at anything.
Fulmer now understands: He didn’t need to throw a fastball in the strike zone.
“We’ve got a one-run lead here with a guy on first that’s a stolen base threat,” Fulmer said, explaining what he should have done differently. “You don’t want him on second, so you want to try to get a ground ball here. Maybe the four-seam fastball down and away wasn’t the best call. Maybe I could have gone sinker, changeup or slider to make him chase.
“It’s stuff like that I never really thought about.”
Evan Petzold is a sports reporter at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold. Read more on the Detroit Tigers and sign up for our Tigers newsletter.