Niyo: Tigers' Michael Fulmer pitches in wherever needed

John Niyo, The Detroit News
Tigers pitcher Michael Fulmer rides the Zamboni between the second and third periods of a Red Wings game Wednesday.

Detroit  — Michael Fulmer needed a rest. But his friend needed a hand.

So when the reigning American League rookie of the year starts talking about about his offseason getaway from the game, you’d better be ready for the curveball.

Or the wrench, if you will.

And now that Fulmer’s odd job has made national headlines, the 23-year-old Tigers pitcher is getting a bit exhausted trying to explain to everyone just how he ended up digging ditches once he was done throwing pitches last fall.

Yes, he went home to Oklahoma and went to work for the uncle of one of his close friends, helping out 2-3 days a week with their family plumbing business, doing everything from fixing sewer lines to replacing water heaters to snaking drains. And no, he didn’t expect to end up reading about it in the newspaper or talking about it on the MLB Network.

“I don’t do it for the attention or the publicity,” Fulmer laughed Thursday as he joined his teammates for the Tigers Winter Caravan. “It’s just because a buddy of mine needed help, they needed an extra set of hands. And it’s fun to actually get to learn a new trade like that. I’ve learned a lot, I really have.”

The same is true for his chosen profession, as we saw in last year’s steep learning curve on the mound for Fulmer, the hard-throwing right-hander acquired from the Mets in the Yoenis Cespedes trade in 2015.

After a late-April call-up from the minor leagues, Fulmer immediately proved he belonged with the Tigers, going 9-2 with a 2.11 ERA before the All-Star break. And though his numbers suffered at season’s end, he still was the runaway AL rookie winner over Yankees catcher Gary Sanchez.

In fact, Fulmer won’t be around for Saturday’s TigerFest event at Comerica Park. Instead, he’ll be in New York attending a Baseball Writers' Association of America dinner where he’ll accept his award — only the fifth in Tigers history to do win it. (Fulmer, who prefers jeans and cowboy boots, said he’ll even wear a tuxedo he picked up at Men’s Wearhouse for the occasion.)

From there, he’ll head back home briefly before arriving in Lakeland, Fla., on Feb. 1 to get ready for spring training, along with everything that comes next. Already, the offseason required a bit of an adjustment to his newfound profile — “You’ve always got people wanting to talk, and this and that,” Fulmer says — but one thing he learned as a rookie is that it only gets harder once you’ve introduced yourself.

Established reputation

He'll no longer be viewed as a rookie surprise. He'll be counted on as a mainstay right behind staff ace Justin Verlander for a rotation that still has its share of question marks, from the health of Jordan Zimmermann to the reliability of fellow youngsters Daniel Norris and Matt Boyd. (Not to mention the reclamation project in Anibal Sanchez.)

So while Fulmer talks about continuing to work on his change-up and that devastating slider this spring, mostly what he’ll focus on is improving his overall command and, in turn, his consistency.

Wojo: Standing pat was the right move for Tigers

“He’s a strike thrower, but at times he’s gonna have to throw more quality strikes,” said Rich Dubee, the Tigers’ pitching coach. “His stuff plays anywhere. He’s got electric stuff.  But it’s a matter of being consistent and also being able to change approaches to hitters when they change their approach to you.”

Even late last season, Fulmer began to see that firsthand, as he faced divisional opponents for a third and fourth time in a season. What worked before won’t always work again in the majors. And whether it’s the Indians’ Carlos Santana or a veteran like Mike Napoli, “you’ve gotta learn how to get guys out different ways,” Fulmer says.

Last summer, though, there was the added burden of fatigue, something Fulmer refused to use as an excuse at the time but now admits was a factor. He went 1-4 in his last seven starts with a 5.54 ERA, and while his advanced stats never quite matched up with some of that surprising early-season success, his strikeout rate dropped down the stretch and he struggled more with runners on base. Maybe all that wear and tear finally took its toll.

“I think that’s what it was,” Fulmer said. “The last month or so, I was kind of wearing down a little bit.

It wore on the coaches, too. Fulmer had pitched just under 125 innings in the minors in 2015, but by late June last year he was on pace to throw 175 innings.

Shrugged it off

“He’d always tell us he was fine,” manager Brad Ausmus said. “But we’re trying to look out for his interests and the team. So that was one of the tougher balancing acts for Rich and myself last year.”

Michael Fulmer

Without Fulmer, the Tigers never would’ve stayed in the pennant race the way they did. But by stretching out his starts, and skipping some along the way, they were trying to keep him in the rotation and available to pitch if they did get in. In fact, it would’ve been Fulmer making that final start of the season against Cleveland if the wild-card berth were still at stake.

But it wasn’t, so he didn’t. And now Ausmus doesn’t have to worry about the contingency plans they’d already discussed about holding Fulmer back from spring-training starts until mid-March or later. The plan is still for Fulmer to take things a bit slower in Lakeland than he did last year.

But after a good, long break, Fulmer finally picked up a baseball a month ago, has already thrown off the mound a couple times, and he says he’s “100 percent healthy.”

“Everything feels good,” he said. “And I’m really excited to get back to work.”

Not that he ever really stopped, of course.