In April 2016, a 23-year-old part-time plumber from Oklahoma showed up in Detroit, learned a changeup, and immediately became one of the best pitchers in the American League. In the previous two seasons, the Tigers had lost David Price, Max Scherzerand Rick Porcello, and were in dire need of a no. 2 starters.
Michael Fulmer was that good, winning AL Rookie of the Year and making the All-Star team in 2017, before injuries — shoulder bursitis, a torn meniscus, and a series of escalating elbow injuries that culminated in Tommy John surgery — intervened. The torn UCL cost him all of 2019 and led into a 2020 season he would’ve been better off missing as well: 10 starts, just 27 2/3 innings pitched, and more earned runs allowed (27) than strikeouts (20).
Three years later, he’s preparing for his first season as a Chicago Cub. He turned 30 this week, and the tuft of black hair that he used to stick out from under his cap is gone, as Fulmer’s opted for a Price-like shaved head-and-beard look. And rather than a potential ace, he’s now a potential closer.
Fulmer is only putting so much stock in that designation.
“I think it’s important to everyone to have a label,” he says. “But you can’t argue with the fact that the guys in this bullpen pretty much all had save opportunities last year… I just like to have the ball in my hands in the highest-leverage situation possible. Whether that’s the fifth inning or the ninth inning, it doesn’t matter to me when I come in the game. I just like to pitch, and to pitch healthy. The more adrenaline I have the better the stuff is going to be anyway.”
Fulmer isn’t exaggerating; last season, 10 Cubs pitchers registered at least one save, and the only one to hit double digits, David Robertson, is now on his second team since leaving Chicago at last year’s trade deadline. Fulmer is expected to share the high-leverage workload with incumbent lefty Brandon Hughes and fellow veteran free agent signing Brad Boxberger.
fulmer, the 44th pick in the now legendary 2011 drafthad been a starter his entire professional career up until 2021, at which point the situation finally became untenable.
“When [Tigers manager] AJ Hinch and [pitching coach] Chris Fetter told me I was going to move to the bullpen in ’21, for me it was a last-ditch effort to keep my job,” Fulmer says. “2019 and 2020 were rough years for me from a rehab standpoint. Things didn’t heal for me as quickly as I would’ve liked them to. Now, that’s all in the past. I feel healthy, I feel 100%. But I told those guys they saved my career.”
Fulmer took to the bullpen more easily than he expected. In 2021, he made 48 relief appearances totaling 57 innings, posted a 2.53 ERA and 14 saves out of the ‘pen, and learned a lot about himself in the process.
“It was tough at first,” Fulmer says. “I didn’t think I was going to be able to pitch out of the bullpen. I didn’t realize how little I needed as far as warmup routine, throws, pitches on the mound before you go into the game. That’s all the stuff I was panicking about.”
As he adjusted to the new routine and positive results piled up, Fulmer found new purpose in a role he never saw himself filling.
“I love pitching out of the bullpen now,” he says. “I love coming to the field every day with a chance to impact the game, as opposed to pitching and then waiting for four or five days to do it again.”
Fulmer was never a big strikeout guy as a starter, and while some starters move to the bullpen and reinvent themselves as whiff machines, that hasn’t been the case. In 2022, Fulmer was 113th out of 152 qualified relievers in K% and 72nd in whiff rate, but he tied for the 23rd-lowest barrel rate.
Even though he’s mostly a one-inning reliever now, Fulmer has the same goal as when he was a starter: Missing bats is nice, but missing barrels is the most important thing. “The way the game is going now, everyone wants missed bats — that’s what teams are looking for,” he says. “Do I want to miss more bats? Absolutely. But if I get a first-pitch out on a groundout or a weak popup, I’m just as happy as I am with a strikeout.”
Last season, Fulmer wasn’t quite as effective as he had been in 2021, as his walk rate crept into double digits for the first time in his career. Since his salad days in Detroit’s rotation, Fulmer’s repertoire has included a four-seamer, a sinker, a changeup, and his most common offering, a hard slider / cutter that comes in around 90 mph. In previous seasons, Fulmer used that pitch around a third of the time, but in 2022, he used the cutter more than all his other pitches put together, more than 63% of his total pitches thrown.
“I think it was one of those things where that was one of the only pitches that was working at the time,” he says. “I noticed the velo was down a little last year, and that could be the cause of a lot of things. I wish I could tell you it was one thing that I’d changed that caused my veil to be down. But it felt like a safe haven, going to that cutter as much as I could. It was getting the job done.”
It’d be an exaggeration to say Fulmer struggled in 2022; he still posted a 3.39 ERA and 3.57 FIP, and earned a trade from the Tigers to the Twins as they chased a playoff spot. But getting outs required him to get creative with the pitch he trusted most.
“I’d just try to work the quadrants of the strike zone, go up with it, go down,” Fulmer says. “I think that’s why I had decent success against righties, because I could work up and down away from those guys, but I struggled with lefties a little bit for the same exact reason. It was tough to locate a pitch up and in to them, and as far as down and away goes, I didn’t have much swing-and-miss potential with it.”
Michael Fulmer’s 2022 Platoon Splits
|vs. LHP extension||.337||.404||.526||.393|
|vs. RHP extension||.188||.287||.257||.243|
Fulmer is pretty blunt about describing the areas in which he’d like to improve, and the Cubs’ recruitment pitch to him, a first-time free agent this past offseason, included a detailed explanation on how they planned to help. Before he even had a contract in hand, Fulmer had instructions on new pitch grips and mechanical tweaks the Cubs wanted him to try, along with a mechanical breakdown of a start he’d made at Wrigley Field in 2017 to use as a template.
One of the key adjustments, Fulmer says, is “a little bigger-breaking slider. I felt comfortable throwing it this offseason, I’ve had a lot of work with it so far. They seem to be pretty impressed with it, which I’m quite happy about, since I haven’t thrown it like that in my career. As far as the mechanics stuff, it was more about timing, when the foot gets down, maybe stepping a little more closed than I was last year.”
And Fulmer has pitched well this spring. Spring training stats are what they are, but six scoreless appearances to start the Cactus League is all Fulmer could have hoped for. Maybe the new slider can unlock something unexpected in Fulmer. He’s already been able to reinvent himself once.