Detroit Tigers' Michael Fulmer's dip in velocity a concern. Here's why

Anthony Fenech
Detroit Free Press

LAKELAND, Fla. — Michael Fulmer’s first pitch on Saturday afternoon registered at 92 mph on the Joker Marchant Stadium scoreboard.

As progression would have it, the early reading seemed to support his theory of things to come: After hitting about 89-91 mph in his first start of spring training, he touched 93 mph in his second and expected it to only increase from there as March wore on.

But 92 mph never showed up again. Fulmer appeared to be getting little drive from his leg once again. And when he emerged from the Detroit Tigers’ clubhouse in the eighth inning of their 6-4 loss to the Braves – you guessed it – he was asked about his fastball velocity again.

“It’s not like it just vanished anywhere,” he said. “It’s going to come back.

“Today was just one of those days where everything felt great in the bullpen. I thought the ball was going to come out really well today. I thought I was going to get it up for you guys but the timing was just a little bit off.”

And perhaps the timing for this column is a little too early. But Fulmer didn’t look good in three innings against the Braves, his fastball still much slower than we’ve come to expect, his delivery too dependent on his right arm and his demeanor not the same as the dominant pitcher of the past.

Tigers starting pitcher Michael Fulmer throws in the first inning of a spring training baseball against the Yankees on Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2019, in Lakeland, Fla.

It is here where a disclaimer must be added: Fulmer, who turns 26 years old on Friday, is coming off his third right knee surgery. He has been rehabilitating for much of the winter. There are three weeks until the regular season and Fulmer likely has three Grapefruit League starts remaining. There is time.

Even so, the early returns have not been encouraging. And though the Tigers will not publicly claim this as a concern, internally, they cannot be described as confident that Fulmer’s mid-90s fastball velocity will return: They have no clue.

But pitching coach Rick Anderson believes it will, saying, “uh-huh,” and “mhmm” when asked, offering this explanation of why:

“Once he puts all his delivery together,” Anderson said. “It’s a process. He was so out-of-whack coming into spring, flying off his upper half, I said, ‘We’re not going to take five things and do it all at once. And now he’s feeling good with it all. Once he gets his legs into it, I’m very confident in it.”

As Fulmer said, the next step in the process is working on his explosiveness, which he hasn’t been able to spend time on thus far.

“I was talking with the trainers in there all this week and saying, ‘The strength’s there, the pain’s gone, all we need to work on is explosiveness,’” he said. “That’s something we haven’t really been focused on because when we’re coming back from surgery, you’re working to strengthen all of those muscles.

“You don’t really work on those fast-twitch fibers quite yet – the explosiveness – because you don’t want to be cutting back and forth with the injury. So I think that’s kind of our next phase, to try to get from the strength phase to the explosive phase and start doing a little more lateral work and really try to push off that back side, which we haven’t really been able to do.”

Tigers pitcher Michael Fulmer throws a pitch during the first inning against the New York Yankees on Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2019, at Publix Field at Joker Marchant Stadium.

But what if, after three surgeries, that explosiveness is no longer there? And if Fulmer cannot reclaim that powerful fastball — he recorded a career-high in fastball velocity last season, at an average of 96.5 mph, according to FanGraphs — how closely can he resemble the front-of-the-rotation pitcher of the past?

Velocity is not everything, obviously, but there is a significant difference between 96 mph and 92 mph. Fulmer’s calling card has been that fastball. And, while early, it has been nowhere to be seen thus far.

“Trust me, I’d rather my velocity be where it’s at today and get outs than my velocity be normal and not get outs,” he said. “I’m all about trying to command the ball and the movement on my pitches more than the velocity. Like I said, I’m not too worried about it. I’m just trying to work with what I can do right now.”

On Saturday, these were the results: He allowed two runs on four hits in three innings, with one walk and three strikeouts. He threw 45 pitches – less than his last time out, but certainly enough that he’s on track to start the regular season – but endured two long innings. He faced five Braves starters twice.

Detroit Tigers pitcher Michael Fulmer warms up before the first inning against the New York Yankees in Lakeland, Fla., Feb. 27, 2019.

Said one American League talent evaluator: “Thought he showed labor to arm and fastball was flat and his slider was not his best.”

Fulmer kept the ball down, his sinker was moving like crazy, he said, and he induced a number of ground ball outs. He thought his command was the best it’s been all spring.

I told Fulmer I didn’t think he looked good and I was writing a column about it in Sunday’s paper, and asked him if he thought that I was wrong.

“Well, you’re wrong because you guys are more … I thought you guys are result-oriented,” he said. “So if my velocity is up and I have a bad game, you’re result-oriented. And if my velocity is down but the results are good, you guys are still worried about my velocity. Which one are you going to take there?”

I’m going to take the Fulmer that throws 95 mph. But I haven’t seen it yet and jumping to conclusions in spring training, I’m starting to wonder when — or if — I will again.

Contact Anthony Fenech at Follow him on Twitter @anthonyfenech. Read more on the Detroit Tigers and sign up for our Tigers newsletter.