Michael Fulmer loving bullpen role, but will Tigers need to put him back in rotation in '22?
St. Petersburg, Fla. — The look on Michael Fulmer’s face Wednesday afternoon when pitching coach Chris Fetter sauntered out to the mound was priceless.
Fulmer, protecting a three-run lead, pitched a clean, 14-pitch eighth and had just won a 10-pitch battle striking out Jace Peterson for the second out in the ninth.
“What the (bleep) are you doing?” Fulmer said, with his glove covering his face.
Fetter, calmly and hilariously, said, “Well, since you asked, I’m giving AJ (Hinch) time to get Funkhouser ready to get the last out.”
Fulmer turned around and sure enough, Kyle Funkhouser was starting to get loose.
“I had no idea anybody was warming up until he said something,” Fulmer said before the game Thursday, still chuckling about it. “Just joking around. Two outs, three-run lead, usually it’s more about, ‘This is what we need to do.’ Just refamiliarizing me with the scouting report and giving me a blow.
“It was good to smile. It’s pretty fun. Fett knows when to be serious and when to laugh. … I just told him, you don’t think I’m in shape enough to get this last out?”
When Fetter went back into the dugout, he told Hinch that Fulmer would get the last out. And he did, locking down an impressive, six-out save — his ninth of the year.
“That’s the great thing about this game,” Fulmer said. “You’ve got to have fun.”
After three decidedly un-fun years, battling back from major knee and elbow surgeries, Fulmer is having a blast.
One of the turning points of this season for the Tigers was the decision to move Fulmer to the bullpen and use him in leverage situations. He’s 9-for-12 in save situations. He’s got nine holds. His ERA out of the pen is 2.26 and he’s got 60 strikeouts in 50⅓ innings.
He’s worth 1.4 WAR and 6.8 WPA-plus (adjusted win probability added). Useful.
He was at his best on Wednesday. His sinker averaged 97 mph and his four-seam fastball was popping at 96. His slider averaged 93 mph. He also flipped five curveballs which generated three swings and three misses.
“Out of the bullpen, you are going to have good stuff some days and you are going to have bad stuff some days,” he said. “You just never know and that’s kind of the thing I love about the bullpen. As a starter, you can go into a start knowing you don’t feel your best and you can shy away from a certain pitch and change it up for something else.
“As a reliever, if you don’t have your best stuff you have to find a way to get it real quick. One mistake can cost you the game.”
Fulmer loves the high-intensity, adrenaline-fueled existence of this role. According to Baseball Reference, opponents are hitting .239 and striking out one out of every three plate appearances against Fulmer in high-leverage situations.
It would be inaccurate to say Fulmer has remade himself on the mound. He still attacks with power like he did as a starter before the injuries. But he does have a couple of new tools.
Like his four-seamer, for example. He’s always resisted throwing the four-seamer up in the zone.
“Fetter has helped me learn what I need to learn,” Fulmer said. “What’s good and what’s bad. That’s never been a pitch up in the zone that I thought analytically was an above average pitch against major league hitters.
“But Fett said, ‘It’s actually pretty good and you need to start throwing it more.’”
Fulmer is getting swings and misses on 31% of his four-seamers. Hitters are 6-for-32 against it.
And, finally, after years of tinkering with it and abandoning it, he’s had some success recently with the curveball. He’s only thrown 27 of them, but he’s gotten whiffs on 54.5% of them.
The next hurdle for him is to solve the riddle of the right-handed hitters, who are hitting .297 with a .774 OPS off him — as opposed to lefties, who hit .204 with a .587 OPS against him.
“I just have more weapons against lefties than I had in the past,” he said, meaning the back-foot slider and the change-up. “With righties, it’s about commanding the fastball in. It’s psychologically not being able to throw the fastball in to righties on some days.”
When he gets hit, the sinker that was intended to go in, or up and in, to right-handed hitters gets yanked and left over the plate.
“It’s just a visual perspective,” he said. “It’s not about hitting guys. Just sometimes I cut off my sinker a little bit and it comes back more middle. That forces me to stay away, nothing coming inside. If I can get command of the sinker — sometimes it’s there and sometimes it’s not.”
The Tigers need to make a decision on Fulmer. Keeping him in the leverage reliever role seemed like a no-brainer a few weeks ago, given how dominant he’s been. But the issue is a little cloudier now. Not only is right-handed starter Spencer Turnbull sidelined for 2022 after Tommy John surgery, lefty Matthew Boyd may also need surgery.
“I talked to AJ about it,” Fulmer said. “We will talk about it at the end of the year and that’s how I will train over the winter. Either way, I’m good. I feel good coming out of the bullpen and I felt good starting. But this (coming out of the bullpen) has been fun for me after the last few years, so it’s hard not to excited about it.”
Not the natural
Hinch, back in 2019, agreed to do a television interview from the catwalk at Tropicana Field.
“That will be the last interview I ever do from the catwalk here,” he said.
What prompted the interview was the time, back when he was playing for Oakland, he came in here and broke one of the lights on the catwalk with a foul ball. Just like the movie “The Natural,” sparks flew and glass fell all over the field, a lot of it falling on Athletics third base coach Ron Washington.
“It would have been a really cool, Natural moment if I hit a home run after that,” Hinch said. “But instead I punched out. The moment wasn’t nearly as good as it was in the movie.”
Around the horn
Hinch confirmed that left-handed pitching prospect Joey Wentz has been shut down for the year at Double-A Erie. Coming off Tommy John surgery, hit threw 72 innings between Low-A Lakeland and Erie.
“He had a complete season,” Hinch said. “The Double-A season ends Sunday and Joey has done everything we asked him to do. We feel like fatigue has set in, like we expected, so we proactively ended his season.”
Wentz posted a 4.50 ERA with 82 strikeouts and 41 walks.
… Erie manager Arnie Beyeler will join the Tigers next week as an extra coach, Hinch said.
… Right-handed reliever Joe Jimenez (COVID-19) has been cleared to resume baseball activity. He is working out in Toledo and will make at least one rehab appearance before being activated.
… Bench coach George Lombard (COVID-19) was back with the team Thursday.
Tigers at Rays
► First pitch: 7:10 p.m. Friday, Tropicana Field, St. Petersburg, Florida
► TV/radio: BSD/97.1
► RHP Casey Mize (7-8, 3.66), Tigers: In total, Mize has had a successful rookie season. Nothing will be defined by these last three or four mini-starts, the value being in pitching a full six months. But one area that might need attention in the offseason is the absence of a putaway secondary pitch. His chase rate (25.1%) and swing-and-miss rate (22%) rank in the bottom third. The slider has been his best pitch, generating a 28.8% whiff rate and a 20% putaway rate.
► RHP Luis Patino (4-3, 4.62), Rays: The Rays have rearranged their rotation a bit. Patino, who was impressive against the Tigers at Comerica Park last weekend, was moved up a day. This was Chris Archer’s turn in the rotation, but he left his start in Detroit with hip soreness. Jeimer Candelario homered off Patino, one of two runs he allowed.