Where Detroit Tigers' Michael Fulmer is headed after 'trial run' in 2020

Evan Petzold
Detroit Free Press

Detroit Tigers right-hander Michael Fulmer didn't come into this season expecting poor results.

At first, he tried to pitch like the 2016 version of himself — the one that won the American League Rookie of the Year crown. But he quickly realized his body isn't the same anymore, not after multiple surgeries.

So, the 27-year-old tried finding his groove with a new cutter, taught by pitching coach Rick Anderson. He tweaked his slider and mixed in his changeup and curveball a bit more. Without his prior 95-mph fastball — he averaged about 93 mph this year — to fall back on, he focused on his command and mechanical changes.

Fulmer tossed 27⅔ innings across 10 starts in 2020 after undergoing Tommy John surgery in March 2019 and missing all of last season. He recorded an 8.78 ERA, a 2.060 WHIP, 12 walks and 20 strikeouts. By the numbers, his season was a disaster.

Still, he accomplished his only goal.

Detroit Tigers starting pitcher Michael Fulmer pitches against the Kansas City Royals on Sept. 24, 2020, during the first inning at Kauffman Stadium.

"My goal when we set a date for the season opener was to make that Opening Day roster and pitch all year and make every single one of my starts," Fulmer said Thursday. "Not have to get skipped or pushed back because of soreness or tightness. ... I've got to be better. I will be better next year, for sure. This year, you know, it's been a tough one."

The harsh reality of Fulmer's prior knee and elbow surgeries, combined with the COVID-19 pandemic, forced him to rehabilitate in the majors. If 2020 had featured a full schedule in both the majors and minors, he would have spent time in Triple-A Toledo.

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Instead, he stepped onto the Comerica Park mound July 27 to compete at the big-league level for the first time in 22 months. The Kansas City Royals rocked him for four runs in 2⅔ innings. On a strict pitch limit all season, he made it at least three innings in five of his starts. Even in his most efficient outing, a 44-pitch carving-up of the Cleveland Indians on Sept. 18, the Tigers nixed a return for the fourth inning.

It seemed like a burdensome restraint.

But the Tigers had no reason to push Fulmer, especially not in a 60-game season. And because of his inconsistencies, he didn't earn the right to test his limitations. Instead, he prepared every five days understanding there was no chance at a fourth inning, no matter how strong he felt. That wasn't easy for him.

"That's what it's been the years prior," Fulmer said Sept. 18. "As the start goes on, the more comfortable I feel with knowing what I have that day."

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When Fulmer was able to make it through three innings without allowing any runs, as he did three times, his body told him to go another round. But no. Interim manager Lloyd McClendon joked that Fulmer would need three immaculate innings — three strikeouts on nine pitches — to get an extra frame.

McClendon, too, knows the results of those starts weren't up to snuff.

"Michael, as well as all of us here with the Detroit Tigers, would've like to see better numbers," McClendon said Friday. "The fact is, he did rehab, and he stayed the course. He made every start. He got stronger. There were some really bright spots and some not so bright spots. Now, he just needs to build on it and continue getting stronger. I think we'll see a better, much stronger pitcher next year."

Tigers pitcher Michael Fulmer, left, leaves in the third inning against the Twins on Monday, Sept. 7, 2020, in Minneapolis.

That's exactly what Fulmer plans to do. Once the season concludes, he will return home to Oklahoma and spend time with his wife, Kelsey, and his son, Miles. He has been rehabbing since Nov. 11, 2019, and needs a break.

Fulmer says he will refocus in November, starting with increased weightlifting. He didn't do as much lifting this season to avoid additional stress on his body — again, his only goal was to start every five days.

Similarly, while he's far from an analytics guy, he's interested in learning more about his spin rates and pitch movement.

Simply put, Fulmer is willing to try anything he can to improve this offseason, whether it's finding his form from that 2016 ROY season (and the subsequent 2017 All-Star nod), or just making incremental steps.

"As far as the pitcher I want to be next year, just being that guy again," Fulmer said, "and getting deep into games and giving my team a chance to win."

Evan Petzold is a sports reporting intern at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold. The Free Press has started a new digital subscription model. Here's how you can gain access to our most exclusive Detroit Tigers content