On Saturday afternoon, the Detroit Tigers claimed right-handed pitcher Carson Fulmer off waivers from the Chicago White Sox. A corresponding roster move has not yet been announced. Presumably, the Tigers will wait until he reports to the team. Fulmer, who pitched in 20 games for the White Sox in 2019, didn’t make it past Chicago’s final round of roster cuts and was designated for assignment on Thursday.
Back in 2015, the White Sox made Fulmer the eighth overall pick of that year’s amateur draft. The Lakeland, Fla. native was coming off a sparkling Vanderbilt career. Evaluators expected him to get the majors quickly, with chance to settle into the top half of the Chicago rotation. He made good on half of that promise — his debut in the major leagues came well before those of his peers. However, in the three seasons that have followed, he has failed to prove that he can be a contributing member of a winning ballclub.
Slowly, over the course of the last few years, Fulmer has been converted to a relief role. His 24 games in Triple-A last season were pitched entirely out of the bullpen, and 18 of his 20 games in the major leagues were relief efforts as well.
The results were mixed, but it’s not difficult to understand why the White Sox said goodbye to their former first round selection. Walking 6.59 batters per nine innings is no way to hang onto a spot on a team trying to contend. There is much more opportunity on the Tigers’ roster though, considering the state of their bullpen and injury-riddled rotation.
The key to whether Fulmer is successful in Detroit is twofold. First, the Tigers have to find a way to coax more value from his four-pitch mix. His fastball carries an above average average spin rate, but his heater has lost a little of the zip it once had. Instead of the mid-to-high 90s velocity where he operated for the Commodores, he averaged 93.7 miles per hour in 2019. The fastball is still plenty good enough when he is locating it, but it hasn’t seen the bump the White Sox hoped he would find working in shorter outings out of the bullpen.
The selling point with Fulmer is the power breaking stuff he can provide. Both his cutter and curveball have excellent spin rates, and at his best he has shown the ability to use both of them effectively. However, despite a power curveball with a high spin rate, Fulmer doesn’t use the pitch much, throwing only eight percent curves in 2019.
MLB Trade Rumors suggested that bolder use of his fastball may go a long way toward setting up his curveball more effectively. Fulmer lives in the bottom half of the strike zone, and often below it, when challenging hitters with his four-seamer. By changing the location of his fastball to accommodate for an increased usage of the curveball, he could see a bump in his strikeout and weak contact rates. Frankly, it’s a long shot, but the Tigers have drawn better grades for improving pitch mixes for their project pitchers, which would be a big step toward rejuvenating his status as a useful player.
The second key is always the crux of the issue. Like most failing pitchers with power stuff, the real flaw here for Fulmer is an inability to command the full package and locate under pressure. He was called up to the majors very quickly — probably too soon, in fact, and he has undergone a series of mechanical adjustments under the tutelage of longtime White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper without success. It’s possible that some of Fulmer’s struggles can be chalked up to paralysis by analysis, similar to what Chicago’s breakout starter, Lucas Giolito, endured in his years with the Washington Nationals.
Here’s the bottom line — Fulmer cost the Tigers nothing and he could be a useful cog in their pitching machine. If they can help him use his repertoire more effectively, they may be able to overcome some of the control issues present in his delivery. He may never live up the the promise of his draft status, but with the right tweaks, it’s possible that the Tigers could help develop him into an effective addition to their bullpen. They could certainly use the help, and taking fliers on pitchers with good stuff who haven’t yet put it together is always worthwhile for a roster that could easily shed a few players without missing a beat.
Here’s a look at Fulmer working back in March.