By Will Burchfield
DETROIT (CBS DETROIT) – It was hard to find anything wrong with Michael Fulmer’s rookie season.
And he’s working on fixing it.
“Last year I was kind of fighting my way through five innings at 90 or 100 pitches. That’s just not gonna get it done for a starter. I’m looking to go six-plus every single time, hopefully more. That just means throwing more strikes and getting a lot of weak contact,” Fulmer said.
Pitching deep into games and working efficiently was indeed a bit of an issue for Fulmer in 2016. In 10 of his 26 starts, he lasted no more than six innings and hurled at least 90 pitches. For Fulmer, a guy who takes great pride in helping out his team and protecting the bullpen, that didn’t sit well.
He is intent on being a more efficient pitcher in his sophomore season.
“My whole goal this season was to work on getting quicker outs, so that mean’s throwing a little bit more fastballs and throwing a few more strikes and basically just challenging hitters,” Fulmer said.
Through five starts, the results have been mixed. Fulmer, 2-1 with a 3.19 ERA and a 1.00 WHIP, has been good, but not as good as he’d like. Again, it’s an issue of length and economy.
Despite surrendering no more than three runs in a single start, Fulmer has worked past the six inning on just one occasion, typically due to an elevated pitch count. His best outing was probably his April 23 win versus the Twins when he lasted seven innings, yielded two runs and used just 98 pitches.
Fulmer’s next step this season, he said, is “putting everything together.”
“I’ve had games this year where the fastball’s been there but the changeup and slider haven’t, or the changeup’s been good but the fastball command’s been a little iffy. So I’m just trying to put that complete start together,” he said. “I’ve been working hard in my bullpens so I’m happy with where we’re going.”
To facilitate weak contact, Fulmer and batterymate James McCann have altered their approach.
“We’ve been going inside a lot more on guys and trying to get jam-shot outs, just trying to get in on their hands, try to keep them uncomfortable,” Fulmer said. “We’re doing a better job of that.
“I think my problem is when I’m getting to 1-2, 0-2 counts I’m throwing balls — slider ball, changeup ball — and then I’m getting to 2-2, 3-2 and now I gotta throw a strike.”
That’s a quick way to drive up a pitch count, and Fulmer knows the importance of finishing batters off. His execution has just been a tad bit off.
“I’m trying to start the ball inside the strike zone and have it finish out, but this year it’s been a problem with me where it’s not even starting in the strike zone. I’m not intentionally throwing it as like a waste pitch, I’m just trying to get ‘em to chase a little more, especially 0-2, 1-2. But when I get to 2-2 I gotta do a better job of attacking the strike zone as opposed to throwing something that they can just spit on to force a full count,” Fulmer said.
Another issue for Fulmer this season has been his effectiveness early in games. Nine of the 11 runs he’s allowed have come in the first three innings. It’s as confusing to him as anyone else.
“That’s weird, isn’t it? I couldn’t tell you,” Fulmer said. “I don’t know if I’m trying to attack guys more with fastballs or not being careful enough. There’s no explanation for it. I guess I just gotta try to mix my pitches better and look to get outs from the get-go.”
He later pointed to the fact that he can no longer rely on the benefit of unfamiliarity.
“Obviously guys have seen me last year, and there’s an adjustment period with that. I feel like once I see guys’ swings and read guys’ swings I have a better game plan. I think that’s why a lot of my success is coming later in the game or second and third time through the order. That being said, I need to do a better job of getting guys out the first time,” said Fulmer.
The more he does that, the closer he’ll come to eliminating the only (small) blemish on his young resume.