Detroit Tigers: Michael Fulmer Continues Plumbing the Depths

LAKELAND, FL - FEBRUARY 12: Michael Fulmer #32 of the Detroit Tigers looks on during Spring Training workouts at the TigerTown Facility on February 12, 2020 in Lakeland, Florida. (Photo by Mark Cunningham/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
LAKELAND, FL - FEBRUARY 12: Michael Fulmer #32 of the Detroit Tigers looks on during Spring Training workouts at the TigerTown Facility on February 12, 2020 in Lakeland, Florida. (Photo by Mark Cunningham/MLB Photos via Getty Images) /

The Detroit Tigers sent Michael Fulmer to the hill on Thursday afternoon to face the Toronto Blue Jays. Certainly, the Tigers’ brain trust was hoping to see some positives as they build a rotation. However, Fulmer flashed a lot of the form from 2020 where he was plumbing the depths of baseball with an ugly 8.78 ERA.

At the end of the day, it’s just one meaningless Spring Training outing where a starter was tagged and it counts for very little. However, for those watching Michael Fulmer, it’s going to set the “Worry-ometer” into the red numbers. There has been precious little to feel good about for the big righty since injuries derailed him badly in 2018.

The Blue Jays jumped Fulmer for three homers in the outing courtesy of Vladimir Guerrero Jr, George Springer, and Alejandro Kirk. Fulmer managed only four swing and misses in his 55 pitch misadventure in Dunedin. One possible bright spot was the sight of Fulmer finding some velocity that’s been missing in his comeback with a few gun readings around 95-mph.

Where does it go from here for the Detroit Tigers?

Despite the headline above, it’s too early to think Fulmer will be installing water pipes in his off-season vocation as a plumbing professional on a full-time basis.

The Tigers would still like to see him unclog the drain…oh stop!…and find the form of the 2016 AL Rookie of the Year and the 2017 All-Star.

It’s just that the 2017 season is starting to look very far away as we sit in the Spring of 2021 and see no results on the mound for Fulmer as he battles back from multiple injuries and surgeries including a run of injuries to his elbow, forearm, oblique muscle, and his knee. Plenty of Mercedes purchases by orthopedic doctors have been subsidized partially by Fulmer’s maladies.

Does Fulmer have a path forward? Can he regain some of the form he once flashed in Detroit? Or is he a victim of “Early On-set Jordan Zimmermann Syndrome”?

The true path forward begins by forgetting 2020 and the 8.68 ERA. This space has been more than happy to give several players who struggled in the weird COVID-tainted season a pass for the most part. Fulmer was also in the very early stages of Tommy John recovery and there is some track record of pitchers doing far better in Year-2 post-surgery. 

Despite today’s Spring bomb-fest at Fulmer’s expense, he’s still under team control through 2023 and has a pedigree that can’t be easily tossed to the curb especially given the team’s standing at the bottom of the heap. The Tigers’ inability to likely contend in the near future works to Fulmer’s benefit. The Tigers can give him multiple opportunities to find some type of role on the staff without jeopardizing any real hopes of a playoff run.

Fulmer was indeed throwing a few pitches at 95 today. Lost velocity was a concern in ‘20 when Fulmer lost over 3.5 mph on his heater from his standards in ‘17/‘18. If enough heat is coming back that’s at least one small hurdle overcome. But there is a lot more to worry about. The three dingers surrendered today just adds to the clubbing Fulmer took with long balls in ‘20. Balls were flying out against him and it wasn’t merely a run of bad luck due to fence-scrapers barely finding the seats. Fulmer needs to regain his command in the strike zone…something not shown by the center cut 94-mph fastball yelling “wallop me, please” to Vlad Jr. on Thursday.

This where all Detroit Tigers fans can hope new pitching coach Chris Fetter has some degree of success resurrecting Fulmer. Truth be told, every time a new pitching coach is brought aboard it’s easy to ponder how this new pitching shaman will have a miraculous power to turn dog poo into filet mignon across the board. It’s unrealistic to think Fetter will fix everybody who needs fixing. Some mountains are too tall to climb. Fulmer looks to be on the path to oblivion in some respects but maybe he’s the guy Fetter strikes gold with assuming Fulmer holds up physically.

Fetter is known for emphasizing a pitcher’s strengths instead of shoring up weaknesses and for developing individualized plans for each of his guys. This makes sense. The needs of Tarik Skubal don’t necessarily always intersect with the need of Fulmer or Spencer Turnbull. They shouldn’t train alike.

Hope Springs Eternal

The ZiPS projection system is forecasting Fulmer to toss about 106 innings in 22 starts this season with an ERA of 4.67. Given how the last few years have gone, that probably wouldn’t be a bad outcome though it’s a sure thing Fulmer expects more of himself than that.

The things to look for in ‘21 for Fulmer would seem to be “good health” first and foremost. He has to put the injury nightmare of the last four years behind him.

The rise in velocity must sustain itself as Fulmer re-invents himself under Fetter’s care. The heavy well-placed heater was what set up the wipeout slider in the Fulmer glory-minutes in ‘16/‘17. If his fastball command in the zone gets better the sky-high homer rate will drop precipitously. Fulmer will then have a chance and not be behind in so many counts.

Fulmer has given us very few moments for optimism. But in a day where the Tigers aren’t concerned about winning at the present, Fulmer isn’t lavishly compensated. Since he’s cheap and he’s already there plus being someone once thought to be a budding ace, it’s worth the Tigers giving him more chances until they have a staff assembled they can compete with for a berth in October.

The Tale of Michael Fulmer should interest the Tigers in putting as much offense around the young arms they’re building a new staff with now. Pitchers break…pure and simple. You can’t count on many of them to be IL-resistant like Rick Porcello, Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander once were. The Tigers need to get Casey Mize, Matt Manning, Skubal, and others operational within the next year before too many key young pitching components possibly break down and add talent next off-season to go with them. This is if they have hopes of contending before 2025.

Will Fulmer be a piece of that next contender? It looks tenuous now and few would bet on him. But things can change. He’s a smart guy who puts out the scent that he’ll work and try to adapt to find a path to rebirth. Perhaps Fetter and AJ Hinch are the guides needed as well. Fulmer isn’t a full-time plumber yet.