Fulmer times two: Tigers' right-handers both writing epic comeback stories

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Cincinnati — This is a tale of two Fulmers, two high-octane, right-handed pitchers who are both battling through serious career turbulence.

One, Michael, will take the ball at Comerica Park on Monday, his first big-league start since September 2018, his first big-league start after major knee surgery in 2018 and Tommy John surgery in 2019 — his first start in a home opener since 2017, the year after he won American League rookie of the year honors.

Tigers pitcher Michael Fulmer poses for MLB photographer Tony Firriolo.

The other, Carson, is a former first-round pick out of Vanderbilt just claimed off waivers by the Tigers on Saturday who is trying to get his career back on track after four disappointing and befuddling seasons with the Chicago White Sox.

“I just met him,” Michael said Sunday morning. “I said I never had another Fulmer on the same team before and then I asked if I had to put an M on my jersey and he’d have get a C on his. He said he didn’t know. Then I asked him if we were related.

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“My answer to that has always been no. He said he doesn’t know and we’d have to look into it. We have 58 games to figure it out.”

Carson Fulmer grew up in Lakeland, Florida. Michael Fulmer is from Edmond, Oklahoma, but has spent so much time in Lakeland rehabbing from surgeries — shoot, they might be kin. Honestly, though, both have more pressing issues to iron out.

Let’s start with the newly arrived Fulmer.

Back to basics

Carson Fulmer is still just 26. It wasn’t that awful long ago that he was a star at Vanderbilt and a much-hyped, the eighth pick overall in the 2015 draft. A draft class the Tigers must’ve loved, since he is the sixth member among the top 65 picks in the organization (Beau Burrows, Christin Stewart, Kyle Funkhouser, Daz Cameron and Tyler Alexander).

But gradually things started coming apart for him. And as so often happens when a young player who has known nothing but success experiences failure for the first time, it’s like being in quicksand – the harder you try to climb out the faster you sink.

“There was a lot of things I did the last couple of years that I wasn’t used to,” he said. “Mechanical changes, things like that. I could go into all that but at the end of the day, I really want to get back to who I am, back to pitching with my mentality, my competitiveness.

“I love to win.”

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Fulmer was a bulldog at Vanderbilt. He attacked you with an upper-90s fastball and kept you off-balance by flipping up a curve ball every now and then. He’s not been that guy in the big leagues. He’s thrown more cutters and change-ups, and he’s walked too many hitters and lost a few miles-per-hour off his four-seamer.

“Putting mechanics aside, putting all the analytical stuff aside and all that stuff that’s in baseball now, I just want to get back to who I am,” he said. “That’s competing at the highest level, winning at the highest level and giving my team a chance to win — that’s something I lost the last couple of years.

“Where it went away, I don’t know, but I think a fresh start can be very beneficial for me, especially with a team as talented as the Tigers. This organization believes in me and I am really looking forward to being here. I am definitely in a good place right now.”

It took him a minute to get over the hurt. Five years ago he was the White Sox top pick in the draft, then he gets the call that he’s been designated for assignment, that the team that drafted and developed him was giving up on him.

Carson Fulmer

“You’re not the happiest person when an organization tells you that you’ve been put on waivers,” he said. “Especially for me, having success for such a long time. It was really hard to take in. But when you take a step back and take a look at things, I think the best thing for me is a fresh start.

“I feel like a weight is off my back and this is exactly what I need.”

Fulmer threw a bullpen for Tigers pitching coach Rick Anderson on Sunday and before that, he met Gardenhire, Anderson and bullpen coach Jeff Pico in the manager’s office.

“We went back to his pitch sequencing and what he’d been throwing,” Gardenhire said. “He’d developed a cutter and the velocity on his fastball went down. Just want to try to make some changes to get that velo back up. Cutters normally do that, you fall in love with the cutter and you lose the fastball.”

Fulmer threw the cutter 33 percent of the time last year and opponents hit .308 against it. Meanwhile, his fastball velocity ticked down from 96-97 mph in college to 93.6 mph last year. Worse, the cutter is a pitch that is typically down in the zone. The spin rate on his fastball is in the upper 91 percentile in baseball. With steep launch angles so prominent now, a high-spin heater up in the zone should be a valuable weapon.

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“When we first saw him, he was a big, upper-90s fastball guy with a really good curve and a decent change-up,” Gardenhire said. “He’s still trying to get them all right, but he told us he fell in love with the cutter. Maybe he’s going to dump that thing and get back to that fastball stuff.”

It remains to be seen how the Tigers use him, possibly as a starter, more likely in long relief.

“I just want to find a lot of the things I lost in the last couple of years,” he said. “Just find that consistency. I’ve pitched OK since I’ve been back (after the shutdown). Still trying to find my rhythm just a little bit, but I’m really close.

“If you look at what I did in spring training and summer camp together, I’m right where I need to be.”

Free at last

What Michael Fulmer expects to feel when he takes the mound in an empty Comerica Park Monday, remembering how rambunctious and loud and inebriated the atmosphere was for the home opener back in 2017, well, who knows but it’s going to feel incredible.

“I’ll tell you what,” he said. “All these intrasquad games and live batting practices, especially the exhibition game last Wednesday, I’ve been super nervous. And I don’t think it’s a bad thing. I think it’s those good nerves you get from starting the home opener.

From left, Tigers pitcher Michael Fulmer talks with pitching coach Rick Anderson after Fulmer's innings during an intrasquad game at Detroit Tigers Summer Camp at Comerica Park in Detroit on July 13, 2020.

“It’s a great feeling to have. I always welcome it to the point where it’s not straight nerves, it’s more a kind of anxiety — you want to get out there and you want to do well and show what you can do. I feel like if this was just me going out there just making another start and not having any nerves, I’d be kind of worried.”

What a long road — 22 months, two surgeries. And still, he’s not all the way back. Gardenhire made it clear Fulmer was an opener, three innings will most likely be his ceiling for a few starts.

“We’re going to be really comfortable going three innings with him for a while just to make sure,” Gardenhire said. “He’s missed two years of baseball so we really have to be guarded here. All players say they feel good and they’re ready, and we all know what happens when you don’t do these things.

“We’re going to keep the program going here so he’ll be one of our pitchers the rest of the year and for a long time after that.”

Right now, Fulmer will take what he can get.

“I’m going to treat it like a regular start,” he said. “With that being said, not knowing how many innings I’m going to go, as a starting pitcher there’s not a single pitch that I don’t give 110 percent on. Whether it’s the first pitch of the game, a 3-0 pitch, it doesn’t matter. I just can’t fathom the fact of throwing a ball at 80 percent or 90 percent effort.

“I’m trying to get an out with every single pitch. I think I bring as much intensity as I can to my starts whether I go one inning or nine innings.”

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Fans or no fans, quiet park or loud park, Fulmer said it’s still an honor to get the ball for the home opener. And don’t be surprised if before he throws his first pitch, he gives the No. 6 patch on his sleeve a rub for good luck.

“Mr. Kaline came up to me in spring training,” Fulmer said, recalling a story he shared after Al Kaline’s death April 6. “At my house in Lakeland, we host a weekly bible study group with a bunch of guys. He came up to me and asked if he could come to my house and to the bible study with his wife. I said, of course.”

Fulmer said Kaline was one of the first to show up and had a blast playing with his son Miles, who wasn’t yet a year old, and was fully, delightfully engaged in the entire evening.

“It was so special for me and for everybody,” he said. “For Mr. Kaline to come over and talk to us all like that, whether he knew you or not — he’s just an absolute legend. This season will definitely be a remembrance of him.”

And a testament to Fulmer's own fortitude and perseverance.