Michael Fulmer is still evolving in his new role

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Even at this late point in the Detroit Tigers’ 2021 season, Michael Fulmer’s year still feels like a work in progress. Changes in his role, his delivery, his stuff, sandwiched around yet another stint on the injured list, have all contributed to a lot of uncertainty. As he nears his last offseason before free agency, the error bars on projections still seem pretty wide. The refined and high-powered version of Fulmer we’ve seen at times remains extremely promising, but he hasn’t been able to keep a groove going long enough to dance to it.

In Fulmer’s favor is the fact that most of his vital signs as a pitcher look very good. In his first full season back since UCL reconstruction, he’s recaptured his fastball velocity. His average heater registers 95.7 mph, and he’s topped out at 98 mph. He’s pitching in relief now, but that’s still in line with his 2016-2018 velocity. Fulmer also has some new weapons, and we’ll get to them in a moment.

A 3.45 FIP, 2.98 ERA combination isn’t exactly amazing for a high leverage reliever, but he’s clearly been a very valuable weapon out of the pen. As a reliever he’s striking out 24.5 percent of hitters, slightly better than league average, with good walk and home run rates. Despite a month on the injured list for a right cervical spine strain—a strained neck, essentially—and the move to the bullpen, it’s still been a fairly successful year after a rough post-Tommy John return to action last summer.

When we consider hopes for the 2022 Detroit Tigers, Fulmer is one of many low-key reasons for optimism. After a fine season in relief for Kyle Funkhouser, and continued good work from Jose Cisnero and Gregory Soto, the addition of Fulmer really gives the club a tough crew of relievers to deploy with a lead. If they can add quality help to the rotation and the bullpen, manager A.J. Hinch and pitching coaches Chris Fetter and Juan Nieves have shown that they can maximize their available talent. The Tigers should be capable of putting a pretty good pitching staff out there next season.

With Fulmer a year from free agency, and probably due to make around $5M next season, he needed to work his way back into the picture, and he’s managed at least that much this year. The template for a dominant reliever is right there, and if the 28-year-old right-hander would just be blessed with consecutive years of good health, it’s possible this new phase of his career could eclipse the early years.

Turbo sliders and other matters

Prior to his return from Tommy John surgery in 2020, Michael Fulmer’s slider had languished a bit over the years. The most effective version was on display back in the 2017 season, particularly that summer. When he returned in 2020, the pitch appeared to have more depth than the old version, but his command was still holding him back. This season he’s not only used the slider more often, and more effectively, he’s developed a much harder version than almost harkens back to the team that drafted him, the New York Mets.

Since Fulmer returned from the IL in late July, his slider is averaging 91.9 mph per Statcast. The first half of the season from April through June, the pitch averaged 90.3 mph, which was already much harder than in recent seasons. Not only is he throwing the heck out of the thing, the shape is very reminiscent of the Warthen slider, a high-power version in the low-90’s re-popularized by former Mets pitching coach Dan Warthen early in the careers of Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, and Jeurys Familia.

That is quite a weapon. Paired with his power sinker and fourseam fastball mix, it’s really difficult for hitters to differentiate between them. This season hitters are whiffing at the slider 34.2 percent of the time. They’re slugging .280 against it. Even better, Fulmer has shown the ability to use the pitch like a cutter, throwing it in on the hands of left-handed hitters at times. It has a little below average depth, but above average horizontal break. That versatility, and the relief role, has him throwing the slider 38.9 percent of the time. He’s mostly sinker-slider now, with a smattering of fourseamers and the odd changeup mixed in.

But wait, there’s more.

Back in late June and through July of 2017, Fulmer toyed a bit with a knuckle curveball. He never threw more than a handful in an outing, but the pitch did show some promise. Coming in around 79 mph, Fulmer had a pretty good average spin rate of 2548 rpms. For whatever reason, the experiment fizzled out. Statcast doesn’t register another curveball until this season. Four years later, and the curveball is suddenly creeping back into the mix.

He threw a handful of curves back in April, working as a starter, and then ditched it until his return from the injured list. Suddenly it reappeared against the Toronto Blue Jays on August 28th. He’s only thrown seven of them total in relief, but it does add an interesting wrinkle as hitters are 100 percent keyed up for the hard stuff. The curve registers as a regular model, rather than a knuckle curve, but it’s the same 79-80 mph velocity, with a spin rate average of 2509.

Here he is getting a whiff for a strike three against Kyle Farmer of the Cincinnati Reds last week. This one actually had a spin rate of 2640 rpms, and shows how the pitch is likely to be used. With a low 90’s slider and mid-90’s fourseam and twoseam fastballs, he’s has enough variety of power stuff to throw for first pitch strikes. The curve looks better as a change of pace down out of the zone, but perhaps with more use Fulmer will find other ways to work it into his sequences. Right now it’s still in the experimental phase.

Injury risk and a new arm slot

Of course we’ve all seen enough to know that, whatever set of pitches he’s throwing, Michael Fulmer is going to be at least a good reliever. The major questions are all about his ability to stay healthy. To that end, Fulmer has embarked upon yet another fairly major adjustment, this time with his mechanics.

Going to a short arm action is a mechanical change that has grown in popularity over the last few years, though it’s always had practitioners. Chicago White Sox ace Lucas Giolito is probably the most notable recent example, because he struggled for several seasons before getting traded to the White Sox, changing his delivery radically, and going on to win a Cy Young award. Shane Bieber and rebuilt Robbie Ray, along with a host of relievers have all adopted a similar arm path.

This video shows Giolito’s adjustment really clearly.

Michael Fulmer has reasons for changing to this style of arm action that differ in some ways from Giolito’s. For Giolito, this was mainly about timing his delivery better and keeping his shoulders more on plane throughout the motion. For Fulmer, the impetus was the neck strain that sent him to the injured list in late June.

Working with Chris Fetter, and Dr. Georgia Giblin, the Tigers’ Director of Performance Science, it was decided to give the motion a try in the hope that it would alleviate some strain on his neck and shoulder. As reported by Evan Petzold of the Free Press, Tigers rehab coordinator Corey Trimble suggested using a simple device called the Pocket Path to help groove the motion, and Fulmer has been using the device along with plyo balls to train the new arm action ever since.

You can get an idea how the device is used in the company promotional video.

Obviously a folded arm is stronger and more stable than an extended one. By keeping the action short and the arm folded until front footstrike, Fulmer is getting his arm up and in a supported, stable position earlier, freeing up the external rotation in his shoulder. That allows him to get in good position on time to drive aggressively to the plate and throw with good extension out in front, with most of the armspeed generated after he’s brought the ball back up to head height.

Essentially this should take some wasted motion and strain out of Fulmer’s delivery. If the theory proves out for Fulmer as it has for other high-end pitchers around the game, don’t be surprised if we see the Tigers try this with some of their other pitchers. Joe Jimeñez’s glove tap is a different path to a similar purpose, so it’s something the coaching staff is willing to try.

Al Leiter has this typically breathless breakdown of the general concepts involved for MLB Network if you’re interested.

Outlook

Fulmer is probably going to make something in the neighborhood of $5M in his last year of arbitration. He’s worth the risk, and the Tigers need him. It’s doubtful they could find a reliever for the price with as much upside as Fulmer retains. There’s too much uncertainty to really contemplate an extension or a trade at this point, and cutting him loose wouldn’t be advisable either. No, it seems highly likely we’ll see to see Big Mike back on the mound in 2022.

There are an awful lot of changes underway with Fulmer, and it’s difficult to forecast whether this will all come together. If it does, the Tigers have a reliever with the potential to be an absolute force in the late innings. Perhaps even a return to starting isn’t out of the question down the road if the new delivery helps his endurance, and the new pitches give him enough weapons to manage a lineup without max effort all the time. For now though, it’s probably best for Fulmer and the club to simply stay the course and hope things go well in 2022.

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