Examining the root cause of what ails Tigers' Michael Fulmer

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
Tigers ace Michael Fulmer is going through the toughest times of his professional career.

Detroit — It’s an oblique strain that has Michael Fulmer on the disabled list. It’s an oblique strain that has Fulmer doing rehab work in the dense heat in Lakeland, Fla., instead of finishing up this rough west-coast swing with his teammates. 

But it’s been a confluence of maladies, both physical and mental in nature, that has led to the most maddeningly inconsistent season of his life.

“The thing with Michael is, this is the first time he’s tasted a little bit of adversity,” Tigers pitching coach Rick Anderson said in a phone conversation Tuesday. “He’s struggled at times. Things haven’t gone quite as well. And I think it’s a good learning experience.

“Not that you want to see anyone go through it. But this is the first time in his career he’s really scuffled and you can go overboard in trying to fix your mechanics. A lot of times when you scuffle, it’s a mental thing.”

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Here’s a glimpse of some of the mental gymnastics Fulmer has gone through this season. It started back in spring training when he began to tinker with a slower, more sweeping slider. He thought maybe the change of speed would help. He abandoned that and went back to his harder, tighter slider. He’s also fought to regain trust in his change-up, which was a pivotal pitch for him in 2016.

But mostly he’s wrestled to get the feeling back on his slider and that more than anything has led to his inconsistency. Specifically, the mechanical adjustments he’s made to revive his slider, he firmly believes, have sucked the late life out of his pitches.

“The thing that made me successful in 2016 was the late life I had on my pitches,” Fulmer said. “I know I was coming in without guys seeing me and that was part of it. But I could make a mistake, like a sinker up in the strike zone, and a guy would still hit a ground ball to shortstop. He didn’t see it all that great because he still hit on top of the ball. Now, I am throwing my sinker in well-located spots and guys are putting the ball in the air. I just haven’t gotten away with any mistakes.”

He is 3-9 on the season and the Tigers are 5-14 in his 19 starts. His ERA (4.50) and WHIP (1.321) are career worsts.

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And he’s getting hit hard, harder than ever in his career. He’s given up 14 home runs in 112 innings, one more than he allowed in 164.2 innings last year. The average exit velocity on balls put in play off him is a career high 88 mph, per Statcast. The weighted on-base average against him is a career high .325, up from .279 last year, which ranked in the top 20 in baseball.

Tough times.

Michael Fulmer is on the disabled list with an oblique strain.

He was blasted by the Astros in his last start before the All-Star break, giving up seven runs and 10 hits (two home runs) in 4.2 innings. Over the break, he went back and studied himself, poring over video, and it was clear that, even though the velocity was still good, he had no finish on his pitches, no late zip across the plate.

And, again, he traced the root of that problem back to his pursuit of the biting slider.

“All year I’ve been trying to work on that slider,” he said. “My mind-set was, I’ve got to get on top of that pitch and make it have more tilt. I started to get on top of it, then it would either start popping out of my hand or just spin or I just kept yanking it.

“For me, trying to stay on top of the sinker, even trying to stay on top of the two-seamer, my arm slot kept climbing and climbing and my shoulder was all the way up here. That was why I wasn’t able to get through any of my pitches.”

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Try hitting a punching bag with your arm and fist raised above your shoulder. Then try hitting it with your arm and fist even with your shoulder. You get more power, more drive from the latter. This is what Fulmer discovered — he wasn’t properly engaging his scapula in his throwing motion.

“My dad always told me, when you punch somebody, punch through them,” Fulmer said. “So you will punch harder from here (arm even with the shoulder) than up here. That’s really all I’ve worked on, even in the off-season when I was doing my rehab (from ulnar transposition surgery), was engaging my scap down and doing all the rotation work with the scap engaged.”

He was excited coming out of the break. He felt like, throwing from the lower arm slot again, the life had returned on his pitches. He was getting through the slider and the two-seamer, and they were exploding through the zone. Then he tweaked the oblique.

Michael Fulmer is hoping to return to the Tigers sometime in September. The team, though, won't rush him.

“That was something we had talked about before he got hurt,” Anderson said. “He felt he was getting up too high (with his arm slot). When you raise your arm, sometimes your shoulder can get out of whack. You bring it down a little bit and it’s more of a natural thing.

“But he’s been throwing it really well and he should be getting back on the mound in the next day or two.”

Fulmer will throw two bullpens in Lakeland — the first one was expected to be Wednesday — and he will also make one or two rehab starts down there.

“He texts me every day,” Anderson said. “'I’m feeling good, let’s move forward.’ I keep telling him, we have to stay the course.”

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Fulmer has been trying to push process from the beginning and the Tigers have been gently but firmly pushing back.

“The worst thing with an oblique, you can feel great but you cannot rush it,” Anderson said. “Because all of a sudden you tweak it again and then it’s a longer rehab. He wants to hurry, and you respect the heck out of him because he doesn’t want to be sitting. He wants to get out and play.

“I think it’s awesome he has the desire and the drive to get back real quick. But we need to be cautious and make sure he’s completely healed.”

Justin Verlander was a great mentor to Fulmer. But Fulmer also has picked up some of Verlander’s more maniacal traits — like being paranoid about tipping pitches or opponents stealing signs, and constantly tinkering and fussing with his mechanics.

Like with most things, a little of that is good, but a lot of that can be detrimental.

“He’s going to pull out of this, I know he is,” Anderson said. “He’s had a little scuffle and he’s also had some great games, too. Just a little bit of inconsistency.

"I think he’s going to learn a lot from this and it’s going to make him a better pitcher.”