Clearwater, Fla. — Tigers starting pitcher Michael Fulmer told reporters Wednesday morning that he did seek a third opinion, and it confirmed the first two: He has torn the ulnar collateral ligament in his right arm and will need Tommy John surgery.
The original diagnosis was made by Tigers doctors after Fulmer experienced discomfort in his last bullpen session Friday. Dr. James Andrews, who most likely will perform the surgery, confirmed the Tigers’ diagnosis.
“I had my day to worry about it,” Fulmer told reporters in the clubhouse in Lakeland. “It’s in the past now. Can’t do anything about it. When I heard the news, it was like a punch to the gut. You feel like you’re letting your teammates down.
“But you have your one day of worrying and that’s it. You can’t do it anymore. It’s in the past now. There’s nothing you can change. You just have to move forward and just keep working hard.”
Fulmer said he got a third opinion Tuesday night.
“If you go to court for something and you’re sentenced to basically the death penalty, you are going to want to try to appeal it, right?” he said. “It’s the worst outcome possible, and I wanted to see another set of eyes, just to see if we had any alternative.”
Fulmer, who just turned 26, had no way of knowing just how fragile his UCL had become in just a couple of years. In 2014, after he had bone spurs removed from the elbow, Andrews’ report, which Fulmer went back and read just a couple of days ago, called the ligament firm and fine.
Even in 2017, when he had ulnar nerve transposition surgery, the ligament was sound. Even during his three starts this spring, wearing a knee brace to protect his surgically-repaired right knee and hardly using his lower body at all, the arm felt fine.
Then he felt tightness in the elbow during a bullpen session last Friday.
“That’s one of the things that I was proud about, that my shoulder and arm felt great,” he said. “I mean, the reason we stopped throwing in games was to work on my lower-body mechanics, and we kind of found it, and I don’t know what happened.
“It just kind of felt tight and felt a little pain after my bullpen in some spots that I’d never felt before. So we just went ahead and got it checked out. Thought it was some tendinitis, but obviously my MRI showed some more.”
As it turns out, Fulmer was probably lucky the ligament didn’t tear sooner. The Tigers medical staff told him his UCL had deteriorated from scar tissue build-up from both the bone spur surgery and the transposition surgery.
“I mean, every pitcher has damage to their UCL in some way, shape or form,” Fulmer said. “I think they were saying everybody’s got at least a partial tear. But they’re saying mine was being held together by scar tissue, and that it was cementing the UCL in place where the attachment is. They said it could’ve gone at any time.
“All I know is how I felt before, and it felt great. Just one bullpen later, that’s how fast things can change.”
Fulmer said he considered the idea of postponing surgery and rehab the elbow for six months. He was discouraged from doing that by fellow Oklahoman and Orioles right-hander Dylan Bundy.
“The biggest piece of advice he gave me was, ‘Don’t try to rehab it,’” Fulmer said. “Before I even asked him if I should or not, he goes, ‘Don’t try to rehab it.’ He tried to rehab it for five months, basically lost five months of his career.
“He said to go ahead and get it fixed. Afterwards, he said he never thought his elbow could feel that good throwing. That’s the exciting part about it, that just from guys that have had it done, they said they felt so much better afterwards when they came back.”
Bundy made his big-league debut in 2012 and had the surgery, performed by Andrews, that winter. He didn’t pitch in the major leagues again until 2016. Fulmer, who has yet to schedule the surgery or even officially commit to Andrews as his surgeon, is hoping it will be a 12- to 14-month process.
He will have time, too, to fully strengthen his knee, which, even if the arm had stayed healthy, would have kept him on the injured list for at least a couple of weeks.
“The whole velocity drop was straight from my lower body, it wasn’t from my arm,” he said. “I’m telling you guys, the health of my arm was fantastic. It literally just happened a few days ago. That’s why I never worried about velocity. I knew once I got my power and explosiveness back in my legs, the velocity would come.
“But now, it’s just tough, tough to think about. I just think about the whole year going forward and just hope to return the best I can next year.”
Fulmer said he texted teammate Matthew Boyd on Tuesday night, thanking him for what he said Tuesday — that Fulmer would be back better than ever, that we haven’t yet seen the best of Michael Fulmer.
“He’s absolutely right,” Fulmer said. “I don’t think there’s a time when I was 100 percent last year. Coming off that nerve surgery the first half of the season, still experienced some symptoms here and there. And then obviously after that was the knee.
“So I think that I can easily get back to 2016 form, stuff-wise and hopefully results-wise, too.”