How Detroit Tigers’ Chris Fetter revitalized Michael Fulmer’s curveball with one finger

Detroit Free Press

PITTSBURGH — Detroit Tigers reliever Michael Fulmer needed to put Kyle Farmer away.

He worked him into a 2-2 count with one out in the seventh inning while protecting a 3-0 lead over the Cincinnati Reds on Sunday. He had tossed in a first-pitch called strike with a 96 mph two-seam fastball before getting ahead 0-2 on a swing and miss with a nasty 79 mph curveball.

It was a new look for Fulmer — a curve designed by pitching coach Chris Fetter. And he put it to good use against Farmer.

After a pair of four-seam fastballs and a sinker that made it 2-2, Fulmer went back to his 79 mph curveball.

Farmer whiffed again, ending the at-bat.

“It’s really just the speed difference,” Fulmer told the Free Press on Monday at PNC Park in Pittsburgh. “Everything I throw is 89-96 (mph) or whatever, so all my pitches are going to fall into that category. Just trying to show them something different that I can consistently throw. I think other pitches will benefit from it.”

The slow breaking ball made a dive into the dirt as catcher Eric Haase skittered to get in front of it, followed by Farmer trudging back to the dugout.

“It won’t be a secret weapon anymore,” Tigers manager AJ Hinch said Sunday. “He has been working on it quite a bit and wanted to break it out. … There was a big smile on his face when he came in. He put that on the scouting report, so the next team that faces him will be ready for it.”

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Fulmer has had an eventful 2021.

Early in the season, he moved from the starting rotation to the bullpen, where he has excelled with a 3.18 ERA, 11 walks and 55 strikeouts in 38 relief appearances, totaling 45⅓ innings. (In four starts, covering 12⅔ innings, he has a 4.97 ERA, with only seven strikeouts.) Hinch has called his name in high-leverage situations (along with Kyle Funkhouser, Jose Cisnero and Gregory Soto). He also went to the injured list twice — June 6 with a right shoulder strain and June 27 with a right cervical spine strain.

The injury issues are being dealt with by using the “Pocket Path” training kitsuggested by Fetter, along with rehab coordinator Corey Tremble. But with greater responsibilities in relief, Fulmer needed another effective pitch. In stepped Fetter with his curve.

It is not the same pitch Fulmer used to throw.

“The ones in previous years, it was the same curveball I’ve had since high school,” Fulmer said. “I didn’t know where it was going. I couldn’t throw it for a strike. Honestly, the times I threw it last year (when he had an 8.78 ERA in 10 starts) were out of pure frustration, as opposed to trying to have effectiveness with it. I didn’t really work on it.”

Out of the 528 pitches Fulmer threw in 2020, just 26 — 4.9% — were curves, with 10 to right-handed batters and 16 to lefties. Fulmer has turned to his curveball even less frequently in 2021, with 17 curves in 968 pitches — 1.8% — thrown before Sunday’s appearance. That included just three curves to righties. Against the Reds, Fulmer threw two curves to the right-handed Farmer in a six-pitch at-bat.

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The difference between Fulmer’s old curveball from his days at Deer Creek High School in Oklahoma and his new curveball as a dominant MLB reliever in 2021 is minute. Fetter introduced a new way of gripping the ball, asking Fulmer to slightly adjust the ring finger on his right hand.

“It honestly had nothing to do with the actual grip,” Fulmer said. “Fett taught me new thumb placement and ring finger placement. Tucking this ring finger a little more and tucking the thumb more. Before I was holding the ball on the side of this ring finger. Now I’m getting the ring finger underneath the baseball so it can spin better, which I never thought of.

“I told Fett, ‘Man, I’m learning things this year that I never thought I needed to learn.’ It’s stuff like that, not even adjusting the grip. You’re adjusting one finger, and it makes the biggest difference.”

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With assistant pitching coach Juan Nieves watching, Fulmer always throws a few curveballs in the bullpen before his outings, just to get extra practice in case he needs to throw his newest offering. He used it in a game for the first time Aug. 28 against the Toronto Blue Jays.

He hadn’t used it more than once, though, until Sunday’s matchup with the Reds.

“I don’t want to get beat by a pitch I’m working on,” Fulmer said. “I don’t want the team to get hurt by me trying out something that I’m not fully comfortable with. … Comfortable to me is being able to throw it to the right guys with a one-run lead. You don’t want to hang it. Throwing it with bases-loaded, one out and a full count, I’m probably not going to throw that pitch there — yet.

“I’ve got a good feel for it now. I’ve been happy with it.”

More successes like the at-bat against Farmer on Sunday will likely keep Fulmer using it.

“It’s just something that’s a change of pace,” Fulmer said. “Those were the first curveballs I’ve thrown to a righty in a long time. It’s always been: make sure there’s a lefty up that doesn’t see curveballs well, or make sure it’s a lefty that I can get it over in an 0-0 count or 0-1 count without getting hurt by it.

“But being able to have Haase actually call it without me shaking to it and against a righty, that felt great, especially to get a couple swings and misses on it.”

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

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