Boston — Michael Fulmer never mentions the surgery when he tries to explain why his effectiveness has essentially fallen off a cliff after the 85-pitch mark in just about every one of his starts this season.
He will look you in the eye and tell you he feels fine, that he just needs to execute his pitches better when he gets through the lineup a third and fourth time. He will tell you that his velocity isn’t decreasing after the fifth inning — that he is still throwing 95-97 mph.
And he is 100 percent correct. But something is amiss and pitching coach Chris Bosio believes the ulnar nerve transposition surgery Fulmer had last September is part of the problem.
“I think right now we are trying to wrap our hands around the recovery from that surgery,” Bosio said before Thursday's game against the Boston Red Sox. “I am not a doctor. But I know there are some things in there we are trying to figure out, different treatments before the game, literally during the game and in between.
“Quite frankly, it’s something I’ve never dealt with as a pitching coach.”
Bosio has talked to the Tigers trainers and doctors; he’s consulted with trainers outside the organization, including his trainer from his playing days in Seattle. He’s read up on just about anything and everything he can get his hands on.
“From my understanding, as I get to know this surgery, every case is different,” he said. “Every individual is different. But, man, when you do the breakdown on his numbers, once we get around 85 pitches, it’s crazy — it seems to always happen around that pitch number.
“How do we break through that wall?”
From the 76th pitch on, according to Baseball Reference, opponents are hitting .340 with a .415 on-base percentage, slugging .533 with a .968 OPS against Fulmer. In the first five innings, he is holding hitters to a .225 average and a .683 OPS.
In the sixth and seventh innings, a total of 10 innings, his ERA is 11.70 and opponents are hitting .395 with a 1.105 OPS.
“That the velo is staying the same, that’s the positive in this — the velo doesn’t go down,” Bosio said. “If the velo was dropping 5 to 7 mph, I think we’d be looking at a different animal. But we’re not seeing that. We are seeing consistency in the flight of the ball and in the shape of his pitches.
“You see the record, but you have to look deeper at the way he’s going about it. His pitch-ability, his pitch sequencing, he’s still the same guy. But he’s still not too far removed from the surgery.”
Bosio had major surgery on his right foot this offseason. He’s still limping noticeably. Some days, after a workout, he says he feels fine. But on Thursday he pulled up his pants leg and revealed severe swelling from his ankle up toward his knee.
“I get a lot of swelling, a lot of throbbing and I get pain,” he said. “And that’s something that I am not pitching with. So try to imagine that on a guy who had surgery on his throwing arm. And he’s still able to throw at times, 96-97 mph and maintain that velocity. That’s pretty impressive.”
Bosio was asked how the effects of the surgery might be manifesting during Fulmer's starts.
“Sometimes it’s different,” he said. “Whether it’s inflammation in the hand, in the arm, the thumb, the fingers — it varies.”
The hope is, the further Fulmer gets from the surgery, the more these symptoms will dissipate. Already, his velocity has increased from 92-94 in his first few starts back up to 95-97 in his recent starts. But his command has not been as precise.
He’s walked eight batters in the 10 innings he’s worked beyond the fifth.
“It’s not something Mike is going to be able to do on his own,” Bosio said. “This is a team game. A lot of times it’s one play, one pitch. It could be one at-bat where we blow a game open for him so he doesn’t have to try to be so fine.”
The Tigers started milking his arm — essentially massaging it to increase the blood flow — between innings of his starts. That helped with the velocity. They have tried various exercises and techniques between starts.
“But how do we kick through that door,” Bosio said. “We’re very careful with his pitch counts, not trying to push him too much because we don’t want to hurt him. The effort is there. He’s putting in the work. He’s very diligent about how he goes about his game-planning and in-game adjustments. He’s right up there with some of the best I’ve ever worked with.
“So I think it’s a work in progress and it’s getting better. This is a case in point where the numbers just don’t tell the story about the year he’s having.”
Fulmer will be on the mound against the Indians Friday at Comerica Park, trying to avenge a six-run, three-inning outing he had in Cleveland in April.
No leadoff for Candelario
Manager Ron Gardenhire had used Jeimer Candelario in the lead-off spot in three games against a left-handed starter. On Thursday, against left-hander Jalen Beeks, Candelario was back in the five-hole.
“I don’t think he was comfortable there in the leadoff spot,” Gardenhire said. “I think he’s one guy who looked like he might try to change what he’s doing. I don’t want him to get into that. (Hitting coach) Lloyd McClendon felt the same way.”
Candelario went 3 for 12 with a home run, double and a walk in those three leadoff starts. He also knocked in three runs — which is another factor in hitting him fifth.
“We may still hit him leadoff here and there, but we always said we liked him in RBI spots,” Gardenhire said. “Mostly, though, we just don’t want him getting screwed up in the brain trying to do too much in the leadoff spot.”
Around the horn
Right-hander Jordan Zimmermann (shoulder) will make one more rehab start at Toledo, Gardenhire said. Zimmermann went 4 1/3 innings at Toledo on Wednesday.
… Left-hander Francisco Liriano (hamstring) will throw a simulated game early next week and will make at least one rehab start before he’s activated.
… Left-handed reliever Daniel Stumpf (ulnar nerve irritation) has begun playing catch. He will work his way up to a simulated game and a rehab stint, as well.
ON DECK: INDIANS
Series: Three games, Friday-Sunday, Comerica Park, Detroit
First pitch: Friday, 7:10 p.m.; Saturday, 4:10 p.m.; Sunday, 1:10 p.m.
TV/radio: All three games on FSD/97.1
Friday — RHP Trevor Bauer (4-4, 2.77) vs. RHP Michael Fulmer (2-5, 4.73); Saturday — RHP Mike Clevinger (4-2, 3.36) vs. RHP Mike Fiers (5-3, 4.33); Sunday — RHP Corey Kluber (9-2, 1.96) vs. RHP Artie Lewicki (0-1, 3.86),
Bauer, Indians: He’s beaten the Tigers twice, allowing two runs and posting 17 strikeouts in 15 innings. Opponents are hitting .214 against him, and he has 97 strikeouts in 78 innings. He has struck out 24 in his last two starts, but they’ve been rocky — 11 runs (seven earned) in 13 innings.
Fulmer, Tigers: It’s no secret that Fulmer’s issues have come later in his outings, but a report on FanGraphs.com spelled it out graphically. In the first five innings, Fulmer’s ERA is 3.56, opponents hitting .225 with a .683 OPS. In the sixth and seventh, the ERA is 11.70, opponents hitting .395 with a 1.105 OPS.