'Sprint horse' role for Michael Fulmer continues to intrigue Tigers manager

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
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Detroit — Maybe calling it a “modified” six-man rotation is wrong. It might be better to call it a modifiable six-man rotation, or a six-man flex.

Tigers manager AJ Hinch and pitching coach Chris Fetter are kicking around the idea of flipping roles again for Michael Fulmer and Tarik Skubal.

Tigers pitcher Michael Fulmer owns a 3.32 ERA and 0.84 WHIP in 19 innings this season.

“We’re talking about what we’re going to do in the New York series,” Hinch said before the series finale with the Royals on Monday. “We’re considering putting Fulmer back and making him available in Chicago out of the bullpen again – and going to a five-man rotation with Tarik being in it.”

Both started the season in the rotation. But when Spencer Turnbull returned, Hinch moved Skubal into a tandem role out of the bullpen. Both Skubal and Fulmer pitched on three days of rest on Sunday and their next turn in the rotation would be the first game of the Yankees series in New York on Friday.

Understand that this isn’t performance-based. Understand that there is a workload management component involved for both pitchers. And understand the Tigers schedule includes three off days in the first three weeks of May, so a straight six-man rotation is unnecessary.

Fulmer, in his first full season after Tommy John surgery, and Skubal, a rookie who threw just 32 innings last year, were going to face innings restrictions at some point this season and Hinch is trying to devise a way to keep them in the mix for the full six months.

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Having them work in tandem is the working plan right now.

“Number one, we have off days coming up and it’s tough to mix in a six-man rotation,” Hinch said. “Number two, Fulmer in those short stints, being that sprint horse, we like that. We like that intensity. And having an extra weapon in the bullpen is intriguing when we get into a close game.

“There are a few reasons we’d want to do that with him, and load management is one of them.”

Both Fulmer and Skubal have made three starts, as well as pitched multiple-inning stints out of the bullpen. Both have thrown 19 innings. Both are averaging under four innings per outing.

And as Hinch said, Fulmer has excelled in shorter, sprint-horse bursts. He’s faced 30 hitters in the first three innings this season and allowed only a single and two walks. He’s faced 29 hitters in the fourth through sixth innings and allowed six runs and two homers.

“We wouldn’t be just putting him back into the bullpen,” Hinch said. “We’d be looking to use him in critical spots maybe in the second or third game in Chicago.”

Having the left-handed Skubal throwing in Yankee Stadium, with the short porch in right field, is another argument for making the switch.

Searching for resurgence

This isn’t how Buck Farmer envisioned things.

He’s pitched in 162 games for the Tigers the last three seasons. He’s been a mainstay, a reliable, high-leverage performer (3.92 ERA in 158 innings). This year, he got off to a rocky start and is now relegated to lower leverage situations.

He wants that to change, and so does Hinch.

“It would be helpful if he got back to being confident and making some of the results match the process,” Hinch said. “He’s a tireless worker ad he’s doing good things in his bullpens and his warm-ups. He goes out with a plan and hasn’t been able to execute it.”

Farmer has allowed nine runs and seven walks in eight innings. He’s also been nicked for four home runs, not usually a part of his profile. He gave up three homers in 21.1 innings last season.

“As a veteran presence, as a useable right-handed pitcher that has weapons for different styles of hitters, we do need him to be the Buck Farmer of old,” Hinch said. “But those numbers you see on the scoreboard and on his stat sheet aren’t going to normalize for a while.

“And as a reliever, it takes a mental toll on you when you give up big numbers early in the season and how long it takes to normalize.”

That’s been Hinch’s conversation point with Farmer.

“Just control the controllables,” Hinch said. “Control what he can control and get back to being an execution guy. He wants to be used a lot. The better he pitches, the more I can use him.”

Around the horn

The Tigers announced Monday that first baseman Renato Nunez cleared waivers and will report to the club's alternate site in Toledo. 

chris.mccosky@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @cmccosky

On deck: White Sox

►Series: Three games at Guaranteed Rate Field

►First pitch: Tuesday-Thursday – 8:10 p.m.

►TV/radio: Tuesday-Thursday – BSDet, 97.1

►Probables: Tuesday – RHP Jose Urena (0-3, 4.57) vs. RHP Lucas Giolito (1-1, 5.79); Wednesday – RHP Casey Mize (1-2, 5.23) vs. LHP Carlos Rodon (3-0, 0.47); Thursday – LHP Matthew Boyd (2-2, 1.82) vs. RHP Dylan Cease (0-0, 4.15).

►Urena, Tigers: He’s been very solid in his last three starts, going seven innings in the last two. He’s allowed two runs in each of the last three. His sinker-slider combination has been very effective when he is keeping it in the strike zone. He’s been mixing in more elevated four-seam fastball, as well, but that remains, seemingly, an uncomfortable pitch for him.

►Giolito, White Sox: He is coming off the shortest start of his career, allowing eight runs (seven earned) and eight hits in an inning-plus in Boston. He needed 46 pitches to get through the first inning.  According to reports, he’s fixed whatever was wrong with his money pitch, the change-up, between outings.  

-- Chris McCosky

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