Is Michael Fulmer Turning Into Damaged Goods?

He may have been headed here all along.

Will Burchfield
July 21, 2018 - 3:26 am

© Jim Young-USA TODAY Sports

Categories: 

Tigers fans fretting over a possible Michael Fulmer trade can breathe a sigh of relief. After being placed on the DL Friday with an oblique strain that will keep him out for at least a couple weeks, Fulmer isn't going anywhere. Those fans -- and the Tigers themselves -- have a more troubling prospect to consider instead: the 25-year-old might be damaged goods. 

And he could be setting down a path to which he was doomed from the start. 

Okay, let's back up. 

Fulmer isn't facing some kind of career crisis. He's never sustained serious damage to his arm, he's never suffered a significant injury elsewhere. He's not Garrett Richards

In fact, Fulmer has rebounded well from the minor elbow operation he underwent last September. He's throwing as hard as ever, with an average fastball velocity (96.1 mph) that ranks fifth among big-league starters. He's said throughout the year his arm feels great. 

But the numbers, for one, don't look anything like they did a couple years ago when Fulmer was named AL Rookie of the Year. He has a 4.50 ERA and 1.32 WHIP in 19 starts. More unsettling, he's allowed hard contact on a career-high 38.8 percent of batted balls, one of the higher rates in the majors and a hefty spike from 30.0 percent last year and 30.4 percent the year before that. 

Even with his All-Star selection in 2017, Fulmer's performance has been on a slow but steady descent toward average since his extraordinary rookie campaign. His ERA over the last two seasons? 4.10. 

But swings happen. That's part of baseball, especially for young players. As far as his stuff is concerned, Fulmer still has the makings of an ace. It's his durability that should be a concern. 

In truth, it's been a concern for a while. Even when he was in the Mets' farm system Fulmer's high-impact delivery gave scouts pause. It portended injuries down the line. He was also already dealing with the numbness and tingling in his fingers that would lead to last year's ulnar nerve transposition surgery. 

The Tigers knew all that when they traded for him in 2015. They looked shrewd a year later. They may look shrewd again in the future. But right now, with Fulmer's trade value about as low as it's been in the majors 12 months after it was scraping the moon, they look remiss for not selling high when they had the chance. 

Ron Gardenhire said Friday night that Fulmer will be "out for a while." Even if he performs well when he returns and teams come calling again in the offseason, it's hard to imagine the Tigers getting the kind of offer they're looking for. With two injuries -- relatively minor though they may be -- in less than a year, Fulmer's name now carries an asterisk. He's here for the foreseeable future, unless the Tigers lower their demands. 

That could be a good thing, no doubt. It could also unravel if Fulmer can't stay healthy, which is starting to look like a real possibility. As a starting pitcher with a high-stress delivery, Fulmer is a rare breed. 

"There’s not a lot of max-effort guys that are starters, because of the endurance that it takes," said catcher James McCann. "There are guys who are like that, but you see more late-inning relievers that are the max-effort type guys. But that’s who he is, he’s a max-effort guy," McCann said. "I don’t want to say his delivery’s violent, but it’s not a Tom Glavine, 'I’m gonna sit here and be ready to field.' It’s, 'I’m coming at you and here you go.'" 

Relievers can pitch with such ferocity, of course, because their workload is relatively light. Starters ask more of their arms and bodies, and never in his four-year career, McCann said, has he caught a starter with a delivery like Fulmer's. Not even Max Scherzer, who's said to have one of the most violent deliveries in the game. 

"Not to (Fulmer's) extent," said McCann. 

This is why scouts were wary of Fulmer in the minors, and their premonitions are coming to life. His injury on Friday wasn't due to inactivity during the All-Star break. Gardenhire said Fulmer worked out and played catch -- "the whole package" -- during the Tigers' four-day hiatus and was plenty loose when he took the mound for a "light bullpen" session. 19 pitches later, he was headed to the DL.

Freak misfortune? Maybe. But it also sounds like the kind of unexpected setback to which Fulmer's vulnerable thanks to his unusual delivery. Aside from changing the way he throws the ball, he needs to find a way to guard against such injuries in the future. Scherzer, it should be noted, has averaged well over 200 innings each of the last eight seasons (and is on pace to do so again this year) and stayed remarkably healthy thanks in large part to a carefully-developed offseason routine. 

"There’s certain things you can do as a pitcher and a player to take care of your body in the sense that you’re preparing it for that type of impact," said McCann. "There’s no doubt that a max-effort guy’s gonna put more torque on his arm, more impact on his body than a Dallas Keuchel, who’s throwing 88 with movement and saying, 'I’m not trying to blow it by you, I’m trying to get you off my fastball.' Those are two different guys.

"I do think that, really for everyone, but especially for a guy who’s max effort, they have to be on top of their body and take the extra precautionary (measures) to help them sustain over a career." 

Maybe it's extra stretching, said McCann. Maybe it's extra running. Maybe it's extra weight lifting. (Maybe it's less.) For Scherzer, it's continuing to throw when the season ends, spurning an old baseball rule that says to put the ball down until January. 

If there's any upside to Fulmer's early health issues, it's that he still has plenty of time to figure out a routine that works for him. 

"There’s no magic recipe," said McCann. "It’s different for every guy. You look at body types, you look at arm angles, you look at release points. There’s so many things that go into it that it’s gonna be as different for Michael Fulmer as it is for Matt Boyd as it is for Jordan Zimmermann. It's kind of trial and error. Obviously it’s a tough break for him at this point, but it’s also early enough in his career where hopefully it’s a blessing in disguise." 

The Tigers have to hope so, because these goods are theirs. The time to cash them in has come and gone.