Niyo: Leaner, wiser Michael Fulmer a wild card in Tigers' rebuild

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Detroit — Michael Fulmer certainly looks different, having shed at least 20 pounds since his last visit to the Tigers’ clubhouse six months ago.

The former All-Star pitcher admittedly sounds different, too. And not just in the optimistic tone of his comments Thursday as he and his teammates kicked off the Tigers’ winter caravan ahead of next month’s spring training.

For Fulmer, who has undergone three major surgeries the last 2 1/2 years, including Tommy John surgery on his right elbow last March, it’s also in the vocabulary.

Domonic Hamden, 10, of St. Clair Shores, high-fives Matthew Biggs, 9, of Taylor, left, after Biggs won the race to make a tower of plastic cups as the Tigers look on Thursday.

“I use medical terms now that I never thought I’d use,” laughed Fulmer, who remains on schedule with his rehabilitation protocol, targeting a return to the rotation sometime this summer. “I’m like, ‘I didn’t go to college. Where did I learn all this stuff?’”

Fulmer knows the answer, of course. He learned the hard way, and now when the 26-year-old Oklahoman talks about internal and external shoulder rotations or forearm supination and pronation, it’s not exactly by choice. It’s out of necessity, after months of pain and suffering and far too many in-depth consultations with surgeons like Dr. James Andrews.

Still, it’s also with a sigh of relief, Fulmer says, because he’s growing more confident with each day it’s behind him now.

The surgery to repair torn meniscus in his right knee in September 2017. The ulnar nerve transposition surgery a year later. And then the diagnosis last spring that he needed elbow ligament reconstruction surgery, more commonly known as Tommy John surgery. Or “TJ,” as Fulmer calls it now in casual conversation, nearly 10 months into a recovery process that typically takes 14-16 months but offers little in the way of guarantees.

“Obviously, my goal is to get back as quickly as possible, but also as safely as possible,” said Fulmer, who’ll turn 27 in March and will make the same $2.8 million arbitration salary in 2020 he made last year. “We’re ecstatic with where we’re at. Right now, in the timeline, I feel great. And that’s the biggest thing: I don’t want to come back until I am 100 percent.”

Up, and then down

It was two years ago this week that Fulmer — a first-round pick acquired from the New York Mets in a 2015 trade deadline deal for Yoenis Cespedes — accepted his award as American League rookie of the year at the annual Baseball Writers’ Association of America dinner in New York. He followed up that rookie season with a strong first half in 2017, posting a 3.11 ERA and 15 quality starts in 17 outings to earn an All-Star Game invitation, establishing himself as the future ace of the Tigers’ staff, perhaps.

But then came the injury trouble again, and a pitcher who’d already had his share as a young prospect in the Mets’ farm system, including a pair of earlier meniscus surgeries in that right knee and another procedure to remove bone spurs in his elbow, was forced to accept his fate.

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Hindsight truly is 20-20, in some cases. And among the hard lessons many young pitchers learn, that’s often at the top of the list. Just ask Fulmer, who says he implores high school players he talks to these days not to make the same mistakes he made by playing baseball year-round and not taking a few months off in the winter to rest or play other sports.

When he watches video of his own pitching from earlier in his career — he’s had plenty of time, even with a 9-month-old son, Miles, at home — it’s not hard to see some of the reasons why he’s where he’s at now, too.

Michael Fulmer

“I wish I knew stuff in 2016 that I know now, mechanically speaking,” Fulmer said. “It’d save my knee, save my arm.”

Still, with a new ligament and a new lease on life, the arm feels good now. His body feels great. And his mind isn’t far behind. Fulmer is relying on Doug Teter, the Tigers’ head athletic trainer, during his rehab. But also on Chris Smith, who ruptured his UCL at spring training with the Tigers last year and had his Tommy John surgery about a month before Fulmer. They were only teammates briefly, but they’ve stayed in touch and the 31-year-old Smith has been helpful in allaying some of Fulmer’s nagging concerns along the way

Fulmer’s surgery was March 27, and he started playing catch again in November, ending a six-month gap that he says is the longest he’d gone without throwing a baseball since he was in third grade. He’s still limited to long-toss throwing sessions on flat ground, currently no more than 90 feet. They’ll gradually extend that distance to 150 feet over the next few weeks, before Fulmer gets back on the mound in Lakeland and begins throwing at half-speed and three-quarter speed, focusing initially on the mechanics Spinning breaking balls comes later, and that wipeout slider that helped make Fulmer a dominant front-end starter for the Tigers will be one of the last obstacles.

‘Long way to go’

As for what the future holds beyond that, there’s no telling. But as the Tigers await the arrival of a wave of promising young pitching prospects, Fulmer’s eventual return reminds an intriguing wild card in the franchise’s rebuilding effort.

One needs to look no further than the reigning World Series champs to find reasons for hope about Fulmer’s future, too. Three of the Washington Nationals’ four pitching wins belonged to Tommy John success stories in Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin. Jake deGrom, the Mets’ two-time reigning Cy Young winner, is another. And there are many more examples of pitchers who’ve regained their old form and, in some cases, improved on it, with better mechanics and increased velocity.

“If I come back throwing harder, great,” shrugged Fulmer, whose average fastball was 96-97 mph his first three seasons. “If not, I don’t think I necessarily need it.”

All he needs now is a little more time — and patience.

“I still have a long way to go. the hardest part is yet to come,” Fulmer said. “But just that mental state of knowing that I can be 100 percent again and give it everything I have is gonna be awesome.”

Twitter: @johnniyo