Fulmer's fastball, rekindled, pushes radar gun near triple digits
Kansas City, Mo. — Talk about being at the crossroads.
It was Sept. 24 of last year. Detroit Tigers pitcher Michael Fulmer stood in front of the Zoom camera in the bowels of Kaufmann Stadium looking utterly beleaguered after being unable to finish three innings, giving up four runs and seven hits.
It was his 10th start and most had been pretty similar to that one. He finished the year with an ERA just under 9 and a WHIP just over 2. Untenable for all parties concerned.
At that moment he could never have imagined where he’d be or what he’d be less than eight months later.
“I remember sitting in this exact room with a bunch of emotions going through my mind,” Fulmer said. “What’s going to happen next? I knew I had a long offseason ahead of me.”
The Michael Fulmer that faced the Zoom cameras here Saturday was content, confident, on the verge of triumphant. The 2016 American League Rookie of the Year came out of the bullpen in the ninth inning Friday throwing fire, locking down the Tigers' 7-5 win, earning his fourth save.
His fastball averaged 96.5 mph, the highest it’s ever been in a game and 3 mph firmer than what he was throwing last season. He also threw a pitch 99.9 mph, the hardest pitch he’s ever thrown.
“That’s 99.9, we don’t round up,” manager AJ Hinch joked.
To which Fulmer said, laughing, “You absolutely round it up.”
The true significance of the velocity reading is that Fulmer, finally, after major knee and elbow surgeries, is healthy.
“Just the way everything is feeling is the biggest story here,” he said. “I feel great and I’m excited to be able to help the team. And AJ, I appreciate his trust to go to me whenever he needs to. I’m just looking to keep it rolling.”
It wasn’t the most comfortable conversation back in the middle of spring training when Hinch pulled Fulmer into his office and laid out his idea to take him out of the rotation and use him out of the bullpen.
But Hinch saw traits in Fulmer that he thought might play a lot better in shorter stints.
“You look at the DNA of the player and the stuff,” Hinch said. “I saw someone in spring who was a little tentative trying to kind of extend his innings and get to 80, 90 pitches. He had a history as a starting pitcher but I just felt like he needed to let it go. Just come in and give me as much as he could for as long as he could.”
The first thought was Fulmer could be used in a hybrid role, spot start/long relief. But then Hinch observed the effect that adrenaline had on Fulmer when he came rip-snorting out of the bullpen in high-leverage situations.
“The more I saw him in the bullpen, the more I saw him enjoy the adrenaline part of the back of the bullpen,” Hinch said. “And then there was the performance. That ultimately was the deciding factor.”
Since Hinch committed this month to using him as one of his three late-inning options (with Gregory Soto and Jose Cisnero), Fulmer is 2-0 with four saves and two holds. He’s pitched 10 consecutive innings without allowing an earned run with 10 strikeouts and one walk.
“I’m just trying to keep doing what I’m doing and not get too high or too low,” Fulmer said. “I don’t want to change anything. I’m settling into a nice routine.”
As remarkable as the results have been, the ability for his body to respond the way it has going from pitching once every fifth day to throwing back-to-back days and three days out of four as been astounding.
“That was one of the main obstacles, trying to mentally figure that out,” Fulmer said. “It’s the fact that you have to learn how to pitch when you’re not feeling your best. You have to learn, when you’re sore or a little tight, you have to figure out a way to get it done.
“My body feels great bouncing back. I couldn’t be happier the way the body has responded.”
The question that can’t be answered right now is whether this role will be permanent for Fulmer, or will eventually lead him back to the starting rotation.
“As for the long-term view of him, any role is open,” Hinch said. “He can do anything and be pretty successful. This version of him has been very dominant. He’s got the personality and the will to do anything for the team. I don’t know what it will lead to.”
Fulmer isn’t thinking about that right now, either. As he said Saturday, there are five quality starters in the rotation now and it’s best for the team to keep that intact.
“Our job is to find his niche where he can help us win,” Hinch said. “And right now we’ve found that. Maybe a month from now it’s a different role. Maybe next year it’s a completely different role. I don’t know what’s ahead.”
For now, why mess with a good thing.
“I’m just really glad to be healthy and pitching and contributing to helping this team win,” Fulmer said. “We put in a lot of work and it’s finally starting to pay off. I am happy to be where I am.”