Tigers' Fulmer thankful, refreshed after mini load management break

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Chicago — Tigers late-inning reliever Michael Fulmer made six appearances over a 12-day stretch from May 19 through May 30. And, entering play Friday, he hadn't pitched since.

It seemed fair to inquire whether or not he might be dealing with a physical issue. 

Detroit Tigers pitcher Michael Fulmer throws against the Minnesota Twins in the seventh inning.

“This is all on purpose,” manager AJ Hinch said before the game. “But I’m not going to report on every single strategy that we have to try to keep guys fresh. We wanted to give him a break through the Milwaukee series, then we got beat yesterday so there was no reason to use him.”

Fulmer, who was given one more night off Friday, is indeed healthy. But he was worn down from making 13 appearances, most on one or two days of rest, and throwing 14 high-leverage, high-intensity innings in May.

“That was my first month of full-time bullpen usage,” Fulmer said before the game Friday. “It happens sometimes. ... I was still ready, ready to pitch. But they talked to me about giving me a few days and I was thankful for it.

“It was a big workload for me, especially for not ever doing it in my career. But everything is feeling really good.”

The Tigers have been proactive in terms of workload management since the beginning of spring training with both position players and pitchers. But pitchers especially, after the shortened 2020 season, have needed to be watched with a wary eye.

“We’re paying attention to all of our guys,” Hinch said. “We’re seeing the rash of injuries around the league and we’re not going to turn our backs on a real issue that’s prevalent throughout the league. The more you use guys, you want to back off them when you can.”

According to a report in USA Today, through May, there were 104 soft tissue injuries that put players on the injured list. That’s a 160% jump from the first two months last year. The Tigers haven’t escaped it, either, losing pitchers Julio Teheren and Erasmo Ramirez, catchers Wilson Ramos and Grayson Greiner and outfielder Victor Reyes to soft tissue injuries.

Pitcher Jose Urena is also on the injured list but he is expected to be activated Sunday.

“If you asked me about every player and I fully disclosed every little ache and pain and soreness, it would fill your notebooks,” Hinch said. “But it would also be unfair to the players who are going through the day-to-day grind.”

Fulmer had made 89 starts and not a single relief appearance in his professional career before this season. He’d never before put his body through the rigors of pitching on short rest.

“It’s partly just the body not being used to it,” he said. “I was used to going every fifth day and having three off days. You might not feel the greatest in between starts but you tell yourself you got three days to figure it out.

“But in the bullpen, when you have those less than stellar days, you still have to find a way to get through it.”

The last two days here in Chicago, Fulmer threw on flat ground with both head athletic trainer Doug Teter and pitching coach Chris Fetter watching intently. Fulmer did long toss with fellow reliever Daniel Norris Friday and looked strong.

Truth is, even as his body adapts to the new physical stresses, he’s enjoying the new role more than he expected he would.

“I’ve learned that adrenalin is a heck of a drug,” he said. “Just the way the mind works, coming out of the bullpen, responding to the situations— I can’t explain it but I kind of fell in love with it. I’m very happy with the way the team is playing and happy that I’ve been able to pitch in these situations.”

He’s posted three wins, four saves and two holds, with one blown save (the walk-off, two-run home run by the Royals Carlos Santana) since taking the leverage reliever role.

“The losing side of it, that really sucked,” Fulmer said. “That was the first time I’d ever done that. But baseball is a game of short memories. I was ready to go back out there the next day. I even asked AJ if I could.

“But I pitched in two out of three games against the Yankees and I was happy to be able to get back in there.”

The Fulmer plan

Fulmer has an idea that might help solve the sticky baseball issue, which was the topic of the day around baseball.

Major League Baseball spent a month collecting balls and analyzing data and it determined that pitchers were exploiting the system, using sticky substances to increase spin rates. Commissioner Rob Manfred sent out a memo to all 30 teams that a crackdown was coming.

“My personal stance on it, MLB should agree to one singular substance that can be used by every pitcher,” he said. “One that’s agreed upon by hitters and pitchers alike. I think that would solve a lot of the problems.”

Pine tar is too extreme, he said. Maybe the standard rosin and sunscreen combination would help on both cold days and excessively hot days. Something that would improve grip without drastically impacting spin rates. 

“I don’t use anything,” Fulmer said. “But I think, whether guys use it or not, it’s going to be tough when we get to the summer months. I’m a big sweat-er. I go through four jerseys a game and not going to anything — I go to the rosin bag quite a bit when I get a sweat going.

“It’ll be interesting to see how balls react with big sweat-ers without using anything.”

Fulmer, like most players in baseball, is interested to see the range and depth of the league’s crackdown. But it’s not an issue that directly pertains to him.

“I’m a paranoid guy,” he said. “If I were to go to my glove and use anything, I’d get paranoid on myself. I try not to go to my glove when nothing’s there anyway, just so I don’t give any cause for concern. There’s guys who blatantly use it and hitters are starting to see it and they’re cracking down on it, as well.”

The other side of the argument, of course, nobody wants to see pitchers unable to grip and control 95-100 mph fastballs. And if some tackiness on the baseball improves pitchers ability to command their pitches in chilly or heat-damp conditions, without giving them a competitive edge, that should be encouraged.

“Nobody wants to see 98 and 99 mph pitches up and in, under guys chins or over their heads,” Fulmer said. “That does happen sometimes. But we don’t want it to happen. Hitters use pine tar all the way up the bat and that’s not legal. Guys spray stuff on their bats. It goes both ways.

“I’m not trying to start a feud between hitters and pitchers, but if there is something we can agree on that helps both parties, we should look into it.”

Twitter: @cmccosky

Tigers at White Sox

First pitch: 2:10 p.m.

TV/radio: BSD, 97.1

Scouting report

LHP Tarik Skubal (2-7, 4.59), Tigers: He’s allowed two runs or less in his last three starts, with 26 strikeouts in 16 innings over that stretch. His 57 punch-outs are third most among American League rookies and his 13 home runs are the most allowed among A.L. rookies.

RHP Lucas Giolito (5-4, 3.73), White Sox: The Tigers beat him back on April 27, but he’s gotten himself back on track. He’s won his last three starts, allowed three earned runs with 28 strikeouts and six walks in 21 innings. On the season, he’s holding hitters to a .202 batting average, though he has yielded two more home runs (10) in 30 fewer innings than he did all of last year.

— Chris McCosky