Fulmer thanks mentor Verlander after winning rookie award
Detroit — There's something about the seventh year of a decade and a sensational rookie season by a Tigers pitcher.
In 1976, the right-handed comet known as Mark Fidrych burst across the baseball landscape, winning the American League Rookie of the Year Award.
Thirty years later, in 2006, another right-hander blazed his way to the Rookie of the Year Award — Justin Verlander.
And now, 10 years after that, a third Tigers right-hander has put his name on the trophy.
On Monday, the Baseball Writers Association of America announced that Michael Fulmer beat out Yankees catcher Gary Sanchez and Indians outfielder Tyler Naquin in the voting for American League Rookie of the year.
“I started to get a little nervous about it because Verlander kept talking to me about it,” Fulmer said in a teleconference Monday night. “He kept talking about me and him going back-to-back on the award ten years apart.
“Now I’m rooting for him to get the Cy Young Award (Wednesday).”
Fulmer received 26 of the 30 first place votes and earned 142 points. Sanchez, who hit .299 with 20 home runs, a .657 slugging percentage and a 1.032 OPS in 53 games, received the other four first-place votes and finished with 91 points.
“I was ecstatic for the final result,” Fulmer said. “In talking to Justin and some of our other veteran players, they were telling me how big a deal this is. I am really happy and blessed to receive this award.
“But then again, I knew Gary and Tyler had outstanding years and I congratulate both of them. I am looking forward to playing against them for a long, long time in my career.”
Fulmer thanked manager Brad Ausmus and pitching coach Rich Dubee, as well as the Tigers defense and especially catchers James McCann and Jarrod Saltalamacchia. He also thanked Toledo pitching coach Jeff Pico, Toledo manager Lloyd McClendon and veteran Mud Hens right-hander Thad Weber.
“I can’t thank them enough for all they’ve done,” he said.
He also praised Verlander for his mentorship throughout the season.
“He was awesome,” Fulmer said. “I remember back in spring training I was kind of nervous to go up to him because I had been watching him since his rookie year in 2006. He was one of my favorite pitchers in the game.
“But he basically brought me back to his rookie year and he told me everything he wished he would have done.”
Verlander showed Fulmer his shoulder workout routine. He should him his between starts routine. They watched each other’s bullpen sessions. Verlander even helped him with scouting reports.
“It was all stuff he wished he would’ve done as a rookie, as opposed to what he did,” Fulmer said. “Having him in the rotation helped me, Daniel Norris and Matt Boyd so much. He was an open book. I had a ton of questions and he answered every single one of them.”
Fulmer, acquired from the Mets for Yoenis Cespedes in July of 2015, posted a 11-7 record in 26 starts (the Tigers were 19-7 in those starts), with a 3.06 ERA. He was three innings shy of qualifying for the ERA title, but among American League pitchers who threw at least 159 innings, he ranked third.
His .231 opponent’s batting average and 1.12 WHIP ranked seventh in the league.
His 132 strikeouts were the second most ever by a Tigers rookie.
His emergence, given the faltering seasons of Jordan Zimmermann, Mike Pelfrey and Anibal Sanchez, saved the Tigers rotation and, in a large way, their season. Not bad for a guy who didn’t make the opening day roster.
Fulmer was among the early cuts in spring training, but he made just three starts at Toledo before the Tigers brought him up. He made his debut on April 29. He beat the Twins that day, and won two of his first three starts.
But, in his first three starts of May he gave up 12 runs in 14 1/3 innings. His ERA after four starts was 6.62. His WHIP was just under 2.0 (1.966). He was possibly one or two shaky starts away from a return trip to Toledo.
At that point, Ausmus and Dubee convinced Fulmer that he couldn’t continue trying to overpower big league hitters. He had to develop trust in his third pitch — the change-up.
“Dubee helped me,” he said. “He got me to loosen my grip, loosen my wrist and start throwing it at the bottom of the strike zone.”
He unveiled the pitch in his next start, against Tampa, and threw a three-hit shutout over 7 2/3 innings. After giving up 12 runs in those three starts in May, it would take another 12 starts before he would give up 12 more.
“That pitch is mostly for the future, giving him a third pitch,” McCann said in May. “He can’t survive on just fastball and slider. Players will make an adjustment. This is a third dimension to his repertoire. It’s big-time.
“It is his X-factor.”
The change-up was the pitch that turned his season around. But the misconception is he developed the pitch on the fly. Not true. The change-up had been in his tool box for several years, since 2012. But his fastball and slider were so dominant through Double-A and Triple-A, he didn’t need it.
He didn’t have to learn the pitch. He had to learn that he needed to trust it; he needed to throw it.
“All the pieces kind of just fell together in a bullpen session and I started throwing it more and more,” he said. “The more I threw it, the more confidence I got in it and I started to throw it in more pressure situations.”
According to Brooks Baseball, opponents hit .167 against Fulmer’s change-up. Thirty-seven percent of the time opponents swung at the pitch, they missed it.
What he did between May 21 and July 17 was historic. He pitched 33 1/3 straight scoreless innings. It was the second longest rookie streak in history, just shy of Fernando Valenzuela’s record of 35 consecutive scoreless innings in 1981.
Within that streak was four straight scoreless starts of at least six innings in which he allowed three or fewer hits. In 100 years of baseball, since the mound was placed 60 feet, six inches from the plate, only he and the Cubs Jake Arrieta had managed that, and Arrieta did it over two seasons.
In 10 starts from May 21 through July 17, Fulmer went 7-1 with a 0.83 ERA. No pitcher in his Major League debut season had ever posted an ERA that low over 10 starts.
On June 1, he took a no-hitter into the seventh, losing it on a two-out hit. On Aug. 14, he threw a four-hit, complete game shutout at Texas.
Ausmus said during the season that Fulmer reminded him of another right-hander, a star he caught back when he played for the Astros.
“I don't want to put this kind of heat on Fulmer, because he's not there yet, but I kind of was thinking of Roy Oswalt’s first year in the big leagues,” he said. “It's the mentality — he's not intimidated by who's stepping into the batter's box. The environment doesn't seem to bother him. I just think it's his makeup. And he's got good stuff.”
The Tigers were able to limit his innings to 159, without having to shut him down or remove him from the rotation. Even with some rationing, and pushing starts back in August and September, Fulmer still seemed to wear down.
In his last seven starts, he went 1-4 with a 5.54 ERA.
“The big thing is taking care of your body and your arm and developing a routine,” he said. “It’s about knowing when you can try to get stronger and it’s knowing when you’ve got to pull the reins back a little. You have to learn to read how your body feels, learn when you need to take it easy and when to go forward with your routine.”
Fulmer isn’t quite sure yet where the trophy will go. He and his family have moved into a new home this offseason.
“I want to see it first,” he said. “We have an office — though obviously I don’t do any desk work. But, with the new home, it might be the centerpiece of the new office.”