When Michael Fulmer returned to action in 2020 after a year on the shelf for Tommy John and right meniscus surgeries, it was no surprise that he struggled. The elbow surgery tends to get the attention, but the knee is actually the greater concern. His arm is healthy, but with compromised lower half mechanics and a fastball that sat closer to 93 mph than his former 96, the road back was bound to be a rocky one.
Unfortunately, the situation remains unchanged after a month of the Detroit Tigers spring camp. Fulmer is still sitting several miles per hour off his old fastball velocity, and the results through three starts were pretty grim. A 15.00 ERA with three home runs allowed through six innings of work, with ten hits and five walks allowed to just three punchouts, will not get it done.
On Sunday, Fulmer pitched in relief of Matt Manning, who was recalled from minor league camp to make one start before returning. It’s hard to know if this is the beginning of a bona fide attempt to convert Fulmer to relief. More likely A.J. Hinch just wanted to give him a different look. The Tigers could certainly use another right-handed option in their bullpen, but it just doesn’t seem to fit with Fulmer’s current issues. There isn’t really much of a relief profile to speak of without the high velocity fastball to lead the way.
The problem is that if Fulmer’s velocity doesn’t return, we’re looking at a complete reinvention being required to sustain any hope of a further major league career. That is going to be extremely difficult to pull off against major league hitters in short outings, particularly as his mechanics are also a work in progress. Time spent in Toledo might be to his profit in trying to master his delivery and develop a new approach.
Fulmer pitched in 2020 with essentially a hop-step into his front side, attempting to avoiding stretching the right knee too much during his delivery. He and the Tigers’ pitching coaches have made some adjustments this spring, eliminating the hop-step by shortening his stride. Improved stability should allow him to drive off the knee a little better, but in the process, this has also cost Fulmer some of his old extension, making his fastball play down even more. Should he ultimately work his way back to throwing in the mid-90’s, that lack of extension is still going to hurt his fastball and changeup in comparison with his prime years. However, that would at least make a move to relief seem more of a viable option, and help his secondaries play their best as well.
On Sunday, we did get a look at what at a reinvented Fulmer might look like. Against the Phillies, Fulmer mixed in plenty of curveballs and changeups, and he was commanding everything. All three secondary pitches looked good. The fastball was still 92-93 mph, but he did touch 94 in the outing. More importantly, he had his command dialed in, allowing him to rack up nine swinging strikes and three punchouts in three innings of one-hit work.
There you go. Strikeouts on the changeup, the slider, and the curveball. All of them pretty nasty. At its best, that’s a glimpse of how Michael Fulmer has to look like to get back to beyond a quality starting pitcher in the major leagues. If he can do that consistently, 93-94 mph on the fastball may be fine even with the diminished extension.
Obviously, this is still just the beginning of Fulmer’s first full year back from surgery, and struggles are expected. For now there’s nothing to do but see if he can build himself up as the season progresses. But having the time to figure it out at the major league level did not look viable this spring until his outing on Sunday.
Fulmer has options remaining, but currently he’s two seasons from free agency and will reach five years of service time by mid-April. At that point, he’ll have the right to decline any option assignment. So decisions need to be made fairly quickly. The question is how to proceed over the final ten games of Grapefruit League action as the major league roster ramps up its workload.
There are two basic possibilities for manager A.J. Hinch and his staff. Either they commit to a longer term plan, and Fulmer gets optioned to Toledo where he can work on his delivery and stuff in April and May, with the hope of him returning to a starting role still in play. Or, the Tigers try him in the bullpen and give him some leash there hoping he can figure it out in short outings, and possibly move back to a starting role later in the season.
For now, particularly with Spencer Turnbull unable to make another spring start due to COVID protocols, they seem set to give Fulmer at least one more start to see if he can string together multiple outings. If Turnbull can’t make his first start for some reason, that might open up a window for Fulmer to get a look in the rotation anyway.
We’ll see how Fulmer fares in his next appearance, but the fact remains that right now his long-term prognosis as a major leaguer is in real jeopardy. He wouldn’t be the first to require time to get back to full strength and find his command following Tommy John surgery, but the knee issues and the need to refashion his delivery are the bigger problem. One outing doesn’t solve anything, but it does lend a little hope right when it was most needed.
For their part, Hinch and the Tigers can’t be sentimental when it comes to assembling his Opening Day roster. Fulmer is coming to a crossroads in his career and there may be tough decisions in the weeks ahead. Hopefully the Tigers can give him every reasonable chance possible to make it back this season should he be sent down, but right now it’s still hard to see how he fits on the major league roster on Opening Day.