Tigers' Michael Fulmer attacks mini-slump through grueling tune-up session

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Detroit — Here’s how you know Michael Fulmer isn’t freaking out over two straight bad starts. He hasn’t done any rough grooming yet. He hasn’t defaced himself.

“Usually by now I would have shaved my beard or got a haircut, or something,” Fulmer said. “But I can’t really be frustrated because I feel like my stuff is still there. I know it is. The ball is moving the way I want it to. I’m just not commanding the ball in the zone the way I want to.

“I know I can do it. It’s just a matter of time. It only takes one good outing.”

It’s been confounding, though. Two starts ago in Texas, Fulmer was vintage for five innings. He was busting four-seam fastballs at 96-97 mph up in the zone where the launch-angle obsessed Rangers hitters couldn’t touch it. 

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He had seven strikeouts through five innings, striking out the side in the fifth. 

Then, after the Tigers got him a 5-1 lead, he fell apart. He walked the first batter in the sixth on four pitches and before he left with two outs in the inning, he had allowed four runs and four hits. 

“I just lost it,” he said afterward.

He didn’t get it back before his next start, either. The Mariners KO’d him in the fifth inning after he was tagged for six runs and two home-run balls. 

That’s 11 runs, nine hits and three home runs allowed in his last 10 innings of work — uncharacteristic, to say the least. That he’s allowed six home runs in eight starts is alarming, too. He allowed 13 in 25 starts last season.

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Opponents are hitting .343 off his two-seam fastball — which is one of his premier pitches.

It’s just all kind of sideways for him right now, especially when you study his pitches. The velocity on his two-seam and four-seam is still 96-97 mph. He’s getting bite and generating swings and misses and soft contact with his slider (.194 opponents’ average) and his change-up has been decent, if maybe under-used.

“My stuff’s been there,” he said. “Especially the last two starts. I thought my stuff was better than it had been all year.”

So ahead of his start Friday in Seattle, Fulmer did what he always does when he’s scuffling — he busted his tail, throwing nearly 70 pitches in his between-starts bullpen. He broke down his mechanics to rid himself of recurring bad habits and he had pitching coach Chris Bosio put him through some different sequencing drills.

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He was a like a sniper working to recalibrate his scope. 

“We worked hard on my direction,” he said. “Trying to get moving more directly toward the plate. I really haven’t had a problem being around the zone. It’s not like I’m all over the place, wild. I’ve been around the zone and the walks have been because hitters haven’t been swinging at pitches that I thought they’d swing at.”

In other words, he hasn’t been able to establish his command, hasn’t got ahead in counts frequently enough to encourage hitters to chase pitches just off the plate.

Fulmer, since spring training, has worked to land more on the ball of his left foot and not his heel. He’s tried to shorten his stride, which should allow his follow-through to go more over his front foot and help him keep the ball down in the strike zone.

“I was turning my body on the wind-up, too,” Fulmer said. “My toes were pointed toward the third base coaching box instead of straight toward the plate. I had to open my shoulders a little more, which makes me stay inside the ball more.”

On Tuesday, Bosio had Fulmer throw in three-pitch sequences, repeating the sequence five times. Not just sequence of pitches, either. Bosio wanted the pitches thrown in specific quadrants of the plate against right-handed and left-handed hitters. 

“We’d say, right-handed hitter, throw a front-door slider, a sinker down and in and then a four-seamer up and away,” Fulmer said. “We’d do it five times. All of my sliders were great. All of my sinkers were down and in. 

“It was going so well, as far as my mechanics, that I actually got mad when I missed one spot with a four-seamer. My miss was middle-up instead of away and up. It just shows that I’ve got it. I can do it.”

We’re talking about fractions of inches here. That’s the difference between missing a barrel and hard contact. And with a power pitcher like Fulmer, where he’s not going to upset a hitter’s timing too much with off-speed pitches, precision is key.

“It was like I didn’t have my sights set,” Fulmer said. 

Another thing Bosio has done with Fulmer and all the pitchers, speaking of setting sights straight, is to change their target point. He doesn’t want them to just hone in on the catcher’s glove. 

“It’s different starting points on the catcher’s body,” Fulmer said. “You try to figure out a good medium, where the catcher will set up on the black, on one-third of the plate, the middle or wherever you need him to. 

“Like, instead of throwing at his glove, you throw it at his left shoulder.”

Fulmer explained it like this: If he wants his slider to be a quality strike, down and away, he starts it at the catcher’s left shoulder, knowing it will break down and away from a right-handed batter. If he wants the slider to be a chase pitch away and in the dirt, he will start the pitch at the catcher’s chest.

If he needs that pitch to be a strike for sure, he will start it higher, at the catcher’s mask.

“I threw the best bullpen of my life Tuesday,” Fulmer said and then threw up his hands as if to add, for what it’s worth. “I’ve thrown lots of great bullpens. But I think I really needed this one. I think it really helped. 

“It’s up to me now to just take it into the game.”