Kick starter: Rare bullpen stint sparks Tigers' Michael Fulmer

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Lakeland, Fla. — Don’t mistake Michael Fulmer’s compliance and team-first willingness with acceptance.

He is absolutely willing to do whatever manager AJ Hinch thinks is best to facilitate wins this season. But he isn’t ready to be slotted in as a permanent bulk reliever just yet.

Tigers pitcher Michael Fulmer delivers during a spring training game Sunday against the Phillies in Clearwater, Florida.

“I’m OK with going to the bullpen,” said Fulmer, the former American League Rookie of the Year who pitched three scoreless innings Sunday in his first action out of the bullpen since spring training of 2016. “I’m OK with whatever helps the team and in whatever aspect I can help the team win.

“Would I rather be a starter? Absolutely. And I think I can get back to where I need to be with that. But if the best spot for me is in the bullpen, then I am more than happy to do that. And I inferred as much to AJ.”

The way Hinch presented the bullpen work, both to Fulmer and to the media, was as means to kick-start Fulmer, who, in his first full season back from Tommy John surgery, had struggled in his previous two starts.

Though it could end up that way, at least for the first few weeks of the regular season, it was never described as a full transition to the bullpen.

“Just a swift kick in the (butt),” was how Fulmer described it. “AJ brought the idea up after my last start, just trying to come out of the pen and take the thinking part out of it. Just go get loose and throw the crap out of it with a little bit of conviction.

“Obviously it worked. But I told him hopefully it’s not a bullpen vs. starting thing.”

Fulmer, who had knee surgery in 2018 and Tommy John surgery in 2019, is transitioning from a power pitcher who relied almost exclusively on a mid-to-upper 90s sinker pre-surgery, to one who spots his 92-93 mph sinker and four-seam fastballs to set up an array of secondary pitches (slider, change-up, curveball).

“It’s a process,” he said. “I’ve been preaching patience. It’s hard to do it myself. Trust me, I’m getting as impatient as everybody else is. But we’re still figuring some things out. Yesterday was just a small step in the right direction.”

It felt more like a breakthrough. He needed just 39 pitches to get through his three innings against the Phillies. His mix was balanced – nine sinkers, nine change-ups, nine sliders, eight four-seamers, four curveballs – and he was commanding all of them in the strike zone and out of the strike zone. Most of his misses were competitive pitches thrown with intent.

He got nine swings-and-misses with three strikeouts and very little hard contact.

Most importantly, he wasn’t tentative throwing so many secondary pitches and he didn’t seem to be fighting his mechanics.

“It’s not really one thing,” Fulmer said of the adjustment. “We’ve been trying to get the explosiveness back in the delivery without being jumpy.”

After the surgeries and two-plus years of rehab, Fulmer had worked on a calmer, less violent, smoother delivery. He was trying to be slower down the mound. Which, inevitably, cost him the power that he generated in his delivery with his lower body.

“It’s been hard to turn that back on, on command,” he said. “(Sunday) I just wanted to get back down in my legs and almost feel like the me of old again. Get that explosiveness and that fast-twitch feeling again.

“Because of that, we were able to throw more things with conviction, all the pitches.”

Fulmer is taking a crash course, taught daily by pitching Chris Fetter, in pitch sequencing, too. You don’t have to worry too much about pitch sequencing when you are dominating hitters with oppressive power sinkers and the occasional change-up or slider.

“The biggest thing is fastball usage,” he said. “I used to be a 65-70 percent fastball guy and I think it was even more than that when I was behind in the count. I never really learned anything about sequencing pitches. Now that I have the slider and change-up, and we added the curveball, I am learning more and more about reading swings and sequencing off that.”

The transition, is basic terms, is from being a thrower to a pitcher. He’s pairing sliders and change-ups, four-seamers and curves — things he’s never done before. Against left-handed hitting Odubel Herrera Sunday, he threw him back-to-back change-ups to strike him out. Against lefty Andrew Knapp, Fulmer went curveball, sinker, four-seam up in the zone, then got him to chase and whiff on a curve in the dirt.

“This is a learning curve,” he said. “It’s something I’ve never had to do before. And I’m learning a lot about it. I’m anxious and curious to see where it leads.”

He hopes it leads him back to the rotation.

With Spencer Turnbull on the COVID-19 injured list and not likely to return to camp before the team breaks, Fulmer has a clearer path. Presumably, with 10 days left until Opening Day, Fulmer is in a fight for one of the last two spots in the rotation -- behind Matthew Boyd, Tarik Skubal and Jose Urena — with non-roster invitee Julio Teheran and rookie Casey Mize.

Hinch said Monday that Fulmer would get two more appearances. He hadn't determined yet if they'd be a start or a bullpen outing. But, because Fulmer just threw 39 pitches Sunday, one of the two will be on three days of rest.

Twitter: @cmccosky