Cleveland – As Max Scherzer so elegantly stated a couple of years ago, strikeouts are sexy. They are the ultimate power statement for a pitcher.
Detroit Tigers right-hander Michael Fulmer doesn’t dispute that. He loves to strikeout hitters as much as anybody. He’s just not obsessing about them anymore. Ultimately, his success isn’t predicated on amassing strikeouts.
“I mean, yeah, I do want to strike guys out,” he said. “When I get to 0-2 or 1-2, I try to finish a guy off.”
But not at the expense of elevating his pitch count and denying himself a chance to pitch deeper in games.
Fulmer, who will start the finale against the Indians Thursday, has seven strikeouts in the first two starts this season. He has also allowed just one run in 13.1 innings. He went eight innings on just 90 pitches in his first start. Then, in the snow and chill in Chicago Saturday, he went 5.1 innings on 92 pitches.
It’s a trade-off he gladly will make. Pitch to contact, get early outs and go deeper in games – strikeouts or no strikeouts. When he gets two strikes on a hitter, he’s not going to waste pitches trying to set up a strikeout.
“I’m not going to throw a fastball at his eyes and bounce a slider in front of the plate looking for that swing and miss,” he said. “I just trying not to waste too many pitches. On an 0-2 pitch, I will try to make a quality strike.”
Sometimes he’ll catch too much of the plate and the hitter will get his bat to it. Most times, it’s been weak contact.
“At 0-2 or 1-2, if I’m throwing front-door sinker or back-door sinker and I just catch the black (outer edge of the plate), some guys will put it in play,” he said. “Or I elevate a fastball and they still make contact. That’s OK. I’m not going to sit there 0-2 and throw two sliders in the other batter’s box trying to get swings and misses.
“I’m going to attack more of the plate because I’m not trying to waste pitches.”
It’s a change in philosophy that he took to during his rookie season. In 2016, he struck out 20.4 percent of the hitters he faced. Last year, it was 16.9 percent. This year, 13.7 percent. Yet, the contact-to-damage ratio remains light – .228 average against in 2016, .239 last year, .222 this year.
And, more significantly, he averaged just over six innings per start in 2016 and just under seven innings (6.6) last season.
“The ultimate goal is to go deeper in games,” he said. “My last start was not the most efficient 5.1 innings I’ve ever thrown. But the most important thing is to keep runs off the board (he didn’t allow a run) – whether that’s getting strikeouts or getting every single ground ball you can.”
Analytics departments love strikeouts. Fans love strikeouts. Managers prefer outs and scoreless innings, and they love not having to use their bullpen for three to four innings a night.
“Everybody loves strikeouts,” Tigers skipper Ron Gardenhire said. “But if you want a pitcher to go deep in games, with this 100-pitch limit, you better get some quick outs along the way. Otherwise a pitcher’s count will be at 100 in the sixth inning and we’re going to talk about taking you out.
“Strikeouts are still what pitchers strive for. But pitching to contact is not a bad thing.”
It’s all part of the attack mindset pitching coach Chris Bosio has tried to establish with the Tigers’ pitching staff. Strike one is your best friend. Attack the strike zone and put the hitter on the defensive.
“It’s not like I don’t try to strike people out, because I do,” Fulmer said. “But I don’t like to get into full-count or 2-2 situations. That’s when you start walking guys and I feel like every walk I give up comes back to haunt me.”
His slider was a big strikeout pitch Fulmer in his rookie season. He threw it hard, at 89-90 mph. This year, he’s refashioned the pitch. He throws it slower, 85-86 mph and gets, when it’s right, some late sinking action.
“I think it’s more of a swing-and-miss pitch now,” he said. “It may be slower, but (catcher James) McCann says out of my hand it looks more like a fastball than the other one did.”
His hard slider had a 15.79 whiff percentage last season. His new one this year has a 16.28 whiff percentage (according to Brooks Baseball). Fulmer thinks once he develops better command with it, more strikeouts will come.
But, that would just be a bonus to Fulmer.
“As long as we’re putting up zeros and going deep into games and winning ballgames, we’ll be good,” he said.