Lakeland, Fla. — If Michael Fulmer had his way, he’d be down here, going through his usual spring training paces on the back fields, throwing his bullpens and live batting practices and easing himself into Grapefruit League games.
But this isn’t about Michael Fulmer right now. This is about something much bigger.
“Frustrating is a good word,” Fulmer said Wednesday night from his home outside of Oklahoma City, Ok. “But with the players, everybody is united on what we need to do and what we should focus on.
“It’s not about me or some of the other veterans guys or the guys with big contracts. It’s about the Akil Baddoos and Casey Mizes and Matt Mannings and Tarik Skubals – guys like that who are going to perform really well for our team.
“They need to be compensated fairly for it.”
Like a lot of players, Fulmer spent an anxious couple of days wondering if the MLB Players Association and club owners could forge at least a framework for a new collective bargaining agreement. And, like most players, he got a sick feeling in his gut when it became clear that wasn’t going to happen and regular season games would be missed.
But there was also resolve, individually and collectively, that this is a worthy and necessary fight.
“It’s not taking care of the guys who have made money in their careers or have been around for a while,” said Fulmer, entering his seventh season with the Tigers. “It sucks that we’re missing games. We’d rather be playing right now. But we’re trying to take care of the next generations to come. It’s not selfish vibes from veteran guys right now.
“The veteran guys are fighting for the younger guys and setting them up for success in the future…If we don’t take this stand now — and everyone is on the same page, that it’s for the younger guys – it’s the next generation that’s going to get hurt. It really is unfortunate and a little frustrating, but every player I’ve talked to is united to try to fix the game and help the game out for the younger players.”
In the meantime, Fulmer is doing his best to stay ready. The weather in Oklahoma finally warmed to the point where he could throw outside on Wednesday. He’s been working out at a facility in Oklahoma City, even throwing some live batting practice.
But he admits, it’s not the same.
“Anytime you can get more time with your family, it’s always appreciated and needed,” he said. “But I’d rather be playing baseball right now. Everybody on the team, we’ve been talking, everybody wishes they were down in Florida right now. Everybody has been throwing bullpens, live BP.
“Everything is going well here. I’m feeling good, just getting stronger, getting our reps anyway we can. We’re still getting our work in and trying to stay as ready as we can for that phone call – which could hopefully be any day.”
After missing 2019 and most of 2020 coming back from knee and elbow surgeries, and then establishing himself as a reliable late-inning leverage reliever last season, you know Fulmer, entering his age-29 season, doesn’t want to lose any more time.
He and manager AJ Hinch talked at the end of the season and decided Fulmer, the American League Rookie of the Year as a starter in 2016, would remain in the bullpen in 2022.
“Yeah, I’m training as a reliever,” Fulmer said. “I felt so comfortable back there in the bullpen. I think we ironed out some kinks as far as routine and getting ready and a weight room routine, so that I could be able to pitch every day. That’s what I love about the bullpen. You never know when you’re going to pitch. You are ready every day.
“That was fun. I’ll tell you what, it’s a lot of fun pitching late in games out of the bullpen. There is no adrenalin like it.”
His stuff was dynamic in the shorter innings. His sinker and four-seam fastball sat between 95 and 96 mph, touching 97 and 98. His power slider (91-92) induced a 33.5% swing and miss rate. His change-up (hard at 88) had a 35% whiff rate.
He posted a 32% chase rate overall, which was in the top 11 percentile in the Major Leagues.
And the few times he mixed in the curveball, at 79 mph the closest thing to an off-speed pitch in his arsenal, it was effective. Hitters were 0-for-5 with five strikeouts against it.
“I just enjoy it,” Fulmer said of the bullpen role. “I just love pitching and I love coming to the park every day ready to pitch. That’s something I fell in love with.”
But honestly, he was more interested on this night in talking about another right-handed pitcher from Oklahoma.
“How’s my guy Jobe looking down there,” he said.
Fulmer worked out with Tigers’ first-round pick, RHP Jackson Jobe, in OKC a few times this past winter.
“He is a perfectionist,” Fulmer said. “He’s built different. He’s super competitive and he’s willing to learn.”
Fulmer got a chuckle hearing that a couple of teen-aged shortstops took him deep in live batting practice (Manuel Sequera and Cristian Santana).
“I told him guys were going to be swinging,” Fulmer said. “They want to show the coaches and the organization what they can do. They are going to be aggressive. You have to learn to command the ball in the strike zone. And don’t be afraid to throw that slider.”
Fulmer was blown away by Jobe’s 3,000 rpm slider.
“That’s one of the nastiest pitches I’ve ever seen,” he said. “Watching him throw bullpens, like 3,100 rpm. I’ve never seen anything like that in my life. He’s got great stuff and he’s going to figure it out. The best thing about him is, everything he does is to try and make himself better as a pitcher and a ballplayer.”
Just don’t ask Fulmer to be Jobe’s throwing partner.
“No, I wasn’t going to play catch with him,” he said. “I don’t want to wear one off the face. I’m definitely not catching that slider.”