Detroit — It was supposed to be a relatively routine meniscus repair. But the way things had gone for Tigers right-hander Michael Fulmer last season, who in their right mind would’ve expected a clean and easy surgery?
It was anything but.
When Dr. James Andrews began probing Fulmer’s right knee in Pensacola, Fla., on Sept. 20 — it was the second time in five years that Andrews had worked on Fulmer’s right knee — he noticed not only the damaged meniscus, but also some badly frayed cartilage.
“It wasn’t just a run-of-the-mill meniscus surgery,” Fulmer said on Monday from his home outside Oklahoma City. “They X-rayed the lateral side of my knee and it had grounded down pretty much, and the cartilage had rubbed right through.”
So, on top of the meniscectomy, Andrews also had to perform a modified micro-fracture technique on the bone, chondroplasty, to promote better blood flow in the area.
“I don’t want people thinking I had micro-fracture surgery, because it wasn’t that bad,” Fulmer said. “They made some bone abrasions on the lateral side to draw some blood in there to recreate some scar tissue.”
With micro-fracture, holes are drilled into the bone. Andrews scraped the bone to draw the blood into the area. The recovery time for micro-fracture surgery can be as much as 10 months. Fulmer still expects to be ready to go when pitchers and catchers report to spring training Feb. 12.
But progress has been slow and the Feb. 12 date is not etched in stone. It is more like the best-case scenario.
“There is no specific timeline,” Fulmer said. “They said I’d be good to go (for spring training). Things are looking up. I am getting there.”
Fulmer has a follow-up visit with Andrews scheduled for Wednesday, and from there he will head to TigerTown in Lakeland to, presumably, begin his rehab process in earnest.
“We are just waiting to see where he’s at,” Tigers pitching coach Rick Anderson said. “He can do squats and stuff like that, but he said when he goes to push off, that invert (motion), that’s when he feels it. He was a little scared for a while because it wasn’t getting much better.
“But he’s going to see Dr. Andrews and get with (head athletic trainer) Doug Teter. We’ll know a lot more by the end of the week.”
To this point, Fulmer has been working to get the swelling down and to strengthen his quads and all the muscles around the knee. He has yet to do any running.
“Last year was just a rocky year, period,” Fulmer said. “Coming of the elbow surgery (ulnar transposition), it was tough to have the right mindset, tough to believe that everything was all right. I went through some things early in the season where I knew the elbow just wasn’t right.
“I got through that and then had the oblique injury (after the All-Star break). For a while I was feeling comfortable again, just wasn’t having the results I wanted. I am hoping now that we’ve got this knee thing done — the elbow is great, the shoulder is great — I just have to put together a full year.”
Fulmer has packed a lot of health problems into a short span of time, which gives the impression of a broken-down, past-his-prime player. The fact is, he’s still just 25 and will turn 26 in March. And, other than the nerve issue, has not had any problems with his arm.
The former American League All-Star and Rookie of the Year was still throwing his sinker and four-seam fastball with an average velocity of 96 mph last season. His slider limited hitters to a .187 batting average.
“The second half of the year last year, we looked at trying to get back to my old mechanics and I thought we did a very good job of that,” Fulmer said. “There were three or four starts where I was stepping across my body again, creating a little deception and the slider got back to form — before the knee went out.
“We were very excited about the direction we were headed. And then we got derailed.”
Here’s the real concern, though. Fulmer has had two surgeries in five years on his right knee. The meniscus, though repaired, is still fragile. And it would be logical to conclude that his delivery — the force he generates off his right (back) leg to create velocity — will further erode the already damaged area.
“Rick (Anderson) and I have already talked about that,” Fulmer said. “We will have to tweak something. Just the way I drive off my back side, my back leg, something isn’t right. My knee doesn’t like it.
“After these surgeries, we are going to have to find a way to tweak some things. That’s why I am going down (to Lakeland) early again. I want to find a way to fix this thing before everybody else gets down there.”
Can he generate the same velocity without the violent delivery? Will changing the mechanics of his lower body put a different stress on his arm and shoulder? These are valid and worrisome questions that will be answered this spring.
“We’ll have to see,” Anderson said. “We will have to make some kind of adjustment. But you’ve got to drive on your back leg. You are going to have something when you invert. That’s part of pitching. Once he sees Dr. Andrews, we’ll have an idea for a plan of action.”
Fulmer and Anderson already have talked some about changing his approach against hitters. He got to the big leagues with a power sinker. But with the launch-angle explosion of the last two seasons, that pitch has lost some of its effectiveness.
According to data compiled by Statcast, opposing hitters Fulmer faced in 2016 had an average launch angle of 8.8 degrees. Last season, it increased to 10.9. And instead of hitting that sinker into the ground, opponents were hitting it into the gaps. They hit .301 (adjusted) against his sinker last season, with a .441 slugging percentage.
“I’m learning more about the game and about pitching,” he said. “If I knew what I know now when I was in the minor leagues, I mean, I just threw the baseball. But now hitters and have seen me more and I have seen them more. I am going to have to make some changes.
“With the way things are going in this game, with the launch angle and all the home runs and strikeouts, something has to change. I need to make an adjustment to the game.”
Anderson, though, doesn’t want him to completely abandon the sinker.
“You have to stay with the style of who you are,” Anderson said. “It it’s me pitching at 88-89 mph with a sinker and slider, I’ve got to stay with my strengths, launch angle or not. But Michael Fulmer, who throws 95-96 mph, a power guy, he can use the upper part of the zone and pitch off that.”
Again, though, it comes back to health. If the knee can hold up, then Fulmer can get back to his across-the-body delivery and refashion his pitch selection. If the knee doesn’t hold up, then the Tigers have to think about limiting his innings or, worst-case scenario, moving him out of the starting rotation.
“Health is the whole issue,” Anderson said. “We have to just get him healthy before we decide what we’re going to do with him. We need to get Michael Fulmer back to who Michael Fulmer is. Guys like him don’t come around every day.
“A couple of years ago he was an All-Star and dominant as a starting pitcher. Good starting pitchers like him are very hard to come by. Me as well as the rest of the Tigers staff and front office hope we can get Michael Fulmer back to being the starter that he was.”
Know this, though: Fulmer is going into this camp with a fighter’s mentality. No way does he think his best days are past.
“That’s just noise,” he said of his doubters. “I am just 25. I was blessed to get to the big leagues at a younger age. I’ve learned quite a bit mentally and physically about pitching and about mechanics. I honestly don’t think I have hit my prime yet.”