Henning: Blue-chipper Fulmer learns the ropes
Oakland, Calif. — Careers and jobs involve a certain amount of acceptance. It isn’t so much that you hate certain tasks. It’s simply that others can be more comfortable and gratifying.
If you are Michael Fulmer, a blessed power-throwing starting pitcher for the Tigers, the happier duties revolve around chucking a fastball at 97 mph. Or, if his heater isn’t a better choice, a slider that looks for a nanosecond like Fulmer’s fastball until it veers away on a sharp angle is a delightful option.
Where the job becomes less fulfilling, and more of a chore, is when the catcher calls for a change-up. That third pitch can be a little like taking out the trash. Nothing tough or arduous about it. But it isn’t to be confused with fun.
Fulmer decided to roll up his sleeves and get busy with his third-pitch project in last weekend’s game against the Rays at Comerica Park. He threw the change-up. Fairly frequently. And it was, in about everyone’s view, the big difference in a solid start that showed how close to regular work in Detroit a team’s top young pitching prospect has moved.
Fulmer, 23, and a rookie who has been in the big leagues for only a month, worked seven innings. He was nicked for a run, struck out 11, walked one, and got yet another big-league victory, his third against a single defeat in 2016, as the Tigers beat the Rays, 5-4.
He’ll get his next start Friday at Oakland Coliseum when the Tigers play the A’s in the opener of a three-game weekend series.
“I didn’t feel any different, just more prepared,” said Fulmer, a big (6-foot-3, 220 pounds) and bearded right-hander with a fierce mien and easygoing style, as he talked about last weekend’s mindsets and emotions.
Part of the preparation was his between-starts bullpen session. It was more like a rehearsal. Fulmer had to remember his lines, as it were, which in this case meant to follow a script that called for change-ups and more change-ups.
“I think I threw 30 in that bullpen,” Fulmer said. “Usually, the entire bullpen might be 30 pitches. It (the change) has been a work in progress.”
Why it worked against a Tampa Bay team that has shown a rare flair for offense in 2016 was easily explained. Rays hitters couldn’t sit on Fulmer’s either-or choices. While his fastball-slider combo can be a nasty 1-2 punch, big-league hitters can and do adjust to the hard stuff.
But mix in, like a third juggling ball, a change-up that creates more of a swirl for batters, and those words “off-balance” become part of a contented pitcher’s lexicon.
Hitting a baseball is tough enough minus the stride-and-balance challenge presented by a change-up. That’s particularly true when a change-up is dipping away from the hitting zone, which was the case against the Rays for Fulmer.
Fulmer says he had a not-so-secret weapon against the Rays. It was his catcher, James McCann, whom Fulmer calls “Mac.”
“I think everything kind of clicked because of the situations when Mac called for it,” Fulmer said. “I was always in total agreement.
“Now we both have opinions on when to use it. But we were so much on the same page. Mac, he knows so much about the game. And I’m trying to get there. But he’s so knowledgeable and does so much advance study.
“I even texted him after the game and said: ‘Thanks so much for telling me what you thought was right.’ We kept ’em (Rays hitters) off-balance.”
Fulmer is adjusting to more of an equal-opportunity, three-pitch repertoire as he acclimates himself to other aspects of big-league life in 2016.
There is, for example, the matter of residence. He had an apartment in Toledo at the start of the season as he prepared for what figured to be a lengthy stint with the Triple A Mud Hens.
Now, he’s living in a Metro Detroit hotel. And in what town is he bunking?
“I don’t even know,” said Fulmer, who says he has to “GPS it” to figure out the locale and its relationship to downtown Detroit.
His wife, Kelsey, is back home in Oklahoma City (Fulmer’s roots are in Oklahoma). She works as a registered nurse with her own career to nurture as her husband deals with the potential for some back-and-forth assignments at Toledo and at Detroit, depending upon how things go.
The Tigers, after all, know — and so does Fulmer — that life for a young pitcher is not to be confused with a job relocation. Rare is the starter summoned from the bushes (Fulmer replaced Shane Greene when Greene went on the disabled list) who sticks in the big leagues minus a trip or two back to the farm.
Say, in tonight’s game against the A’s, that Fulmer’s change-up doesn’t behave with the discipline it showed against the Rays. Greene is soon to return. Any raggedness in tonight’s start might spur the Tigers to give Fulmer a bit more time to age at Toledo.
Even if there is progress on a scale consistent with his start against Tampa Bay, the Tigers have another concern. It has to do with innings. And pitch counts. And over-stressing a prized arm that last season worked 124 innings between Triple A and Double A Erie, which is where Fulmer reported after he was traded to the Tigers in a deadline deal for Yoenis Cespedes.
It was a dramatic trade, only minutes before the inter-league trade window closed. The Mets were getting a slugging left-fielder who would help push them deep into the playoffs. The Tigers were losing a billboard talent that unofficially ended any thoughts they might contend in 2015.
But there was a strategy behind this swap, understood fully by the Mets and by then-Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski.
Fulmer was not only a blue-chip prospect. He was royal blue. He had the capacity to be no less than a No. 2 starter, and soon, for the Mets or any team that might pry him from New York’s resistant hands.
Dombrowski played poker, daringly, as the clock ticked 15 minutes ahead of deadline. The Mets surrendered: Fulmer would be Detroit’s payoff for Cespedes, and at this stage, as Cespedes crushes pitch after pitch during a marvelous spring hitting run, neither team regrets last July’s deadline duel.
Fulmer is pleased, as well. He likes his new team. He loves pitching in the big leagues. As for how long he stays with Detroit, or how many innings he throws in 2016, he’ll allow others to decide what’s best for the team and for him. There will be no complaints either way.
“I’m just learning,” he said, with a smile that lit up his face, and made a pitcher’s Blackbeard the Pirate look appear less menacing.
The lessons will continue. And yet one wonders if hitters won’t be getting just as much of an education about a pitcher whose talent is so immense, and whose skill set seems to broaden with each start.