Arlington, Texas — Watching big, burly and bearded Lance Lynn throw mid-90s fastball by Tigers hitters on Friday night brought Tigers big, burly and bearded right-hander Michael Fulmer to mind.
Substitute Lynn’s cutter for Fulmer’s slider and you can maybe get a vision for the type of pitcher Fulmer could be when he gets back from Tommy John surgery. Lynn had the surgery in 2015 and he’s got 14 wins and is still throwing fastballs by hitters at age 32.
“I was watching him,” said Fulmer, who has been with the club here in Arlington. “It’s fun to see older guys like that still in the game throwing fastballs at like an 80-percent clip. I love that. I’ve always enjoyed watching fastball pitchers pitch with fastballs.
“That’s what you’re taught. You are taught to pitch off your fastball.”
Fulmer was down here on business. On Friday he visited Dr. Keith Meister, the Rangers' chief surgeon who performed his Tommy John surgery back in March.
“He checked it out and he was happy with it,” Fulmer said. “He was optimistic about everything, as am I.”
Fulmer plans to be in Lakeland in the middle of October and start his throwing program either in late October or in November. If everything goes smoothly with no hiccups or setbacks, he could be back in the rotation soon after the All-Star break next year.
“Dr. Meister told me I could always make up time on the back end,” Fulmer said. “Once you get the ball rolling and you’re throwing you can speed up a week here, a week there. It’s a long process, though. If I am supposed to play catch from 60 feet for a month, and I have a chance to cut that to three weeks, I’m going to do that.”
Toward that end, and after watching Lynn, Fulmer also sat down on Saturday with Shane Piesik of the Tigers' analytics department who travels with the club.
“We sat and talked about my fastballs, my four-seam and two-seam,” he said. “Last year my two-seam was just getting hit a lot, no swings and misses hardly. But my four-seam, which I didn’t throw very often, I got a ton of swings and misses.
“I knew that after the season was over, but not during the season. I asked what I needed to do for next year and he talked about working more four-seamers in.”
Fulmer’s two-seamer, which in his rookie-of-the-year season in 2016 was one of his most effective pitches, was hit hard in 2017 and 2018. As hitters began using steeper launch angles to hoist balls over shifted infields, the two-seam fastball was sinking more often into swing paths.
His four-seam, which he typically throws up in the zone, was finding the holes in those swings. Opponents hit .178 with a 24 percent strikeout rate against his four-seamer last year.
“So when I start my throwing program, I know exactly what to work on,” he said. “And where I need to be spin-rate wise. I’ve never been a big spin-rate guy, but our analytics department, the last couple of years they’ve done a great job of telling us where we’re at, what the league average is and why this is successful and why this isn’t.”
The problem is, a high spin rate is like charm – you either have it or you don’t. The spin rate on his two-seamer was 2,112 revolutions per minute. His four-seam rate was better, 2,265, but still below league average.
Lynn, by comparison, has a spin rate of 2,467 on his four-seam and 2,300 on his cutter.
“I asked about that and (Piesik) said there is no evidence to show you can improve your spin rate,” Fulmer said. “I joked and said then what’s the point in having scouts now? Are we just going off spin rates?
“And he said, ‘Actually, yes.’ In the middle rounds of the draft they will take a flier on a low velocity pitcher because he has a high spin rate.”
It is possible that Fulmer’s spin rate will be better after surgery. There have been numerous cases of pitchers not only regaining velocity but increasing velocity after surgery. And, more to the point, his four-seamer was playing well, even with the spin rate he had before the surgery.
He just needs use it better.
And, as Lynn showed, there’s still value in bringing a bulldog mentality and a mid-90s heater to the fight.
“It was kind of fun, just the way he attacks guys,” Fulmer said. “He was getting swings and misses on balls that were off the plate away to lefties. When I throw fastballs away, I didn’t get any swings. He’s got that true life on it and it just stays there.
“It doesn’t cut, it doesn’t sink, it just stays true.”
It’s going to be fascinating to see what Fulmer looks like when he comes through the rehab process. The Tigers could be getting a front of the rotation starter back for the second half next season.
Turnbull to start Monday?
The Tigers haven't announced a starter for the series-opener against the White Sox Monday, but it's likely that right-hander Spencer Turnbull will be activated off the injured list. He'd been out with a back strain. He made a strong rehab start at Triple-A Toledo last Thursday.
On deck: White Sox
Series: Four-game series at Comerica Park
First pitch: Monday – 7:10 p.m.; Tuesday (doubleheader) – 1:10 p.m., 7:10 p.m.; Wednesday – 1:10 p.m.
TV/radio: Monday-Wednesday – FSD/97.1
Probables: Monday – RHP Lucas Giolito (11-5, 3.39) vs. RHP Spencer Turnbull (3-9, 3.65); Tuesday – Game 1, RHP Dylan Cease (1-4, 6.43) vs. LHP Daniel Norris (3-8, 4.67); Game 2, TBA vs. RHP Drew VerHagen (1-2, 11.66); Wednesday – RHP Ivan Nova (6-9, 5.10) vs. LHP Tyler Alexander (0-2, 4.50).
►Giolito, White Sox: His strikeout rate of 30 percent this season ranks in the top 14 percent of baseball and he’s coming off a strong start against the Mets – three hits, one run and nine strikeouts in seven innings.
►Turnbull, Tigers: He’s returning from the injured list (back strain), but will be limited to about 70 pitches.