DETROIT -- Michael Fulmer enjoyed the end of the Indians’ 20-game winning streak over the Tigers in his last start. And after 20 months of surgeries, weight rooms and throwing on back fields for his rehab process, he’s grateful to be pitching.
But four starts and 11 1/3 innings back from Tommy John surgery, the former American League Rookie of the Year Award winner's frustration with himself is evident as he prepares for Wednesday’s series finale against the Cubs at Comerica Park.
“I’m the worst critic of myself, and it’s very frustrating to be putting up the results that I have personally,” Fulmer said over the weekend. “I just try to put the team in the best position to win, and right now I’m not doing that. It kills me to try to go out there every fifth day and just try to be perfect.
“But I’m not giving up. I’ve been working hard, and I truly believe the best is yet to come. Last year was such a long road, such a long year for me. This year, it’s going to pay off. It’s just going to take some time for me. … I feel like we’re close, and I know I say it a lot. We’re just a tick off somewhere, and I’m just trying to find where. I’m going to keep working hard and hopefully we’ll get it.”
If that part about being close after a tough outing against Cleveland sounds familiar, it’s what Justin Verlander said in the summer of 2017. He wasn’t coming back from surgery, but he had an ERA nearing 5.00 and was struggling with command. Two outings later, he found it, posting a 2.32 ERA and 73 strikeouts over 62 innings in nine starts before his trade to the Astros.
Back then, Verlander was trying to find his slider. In Fulmer’s case, it’s a little bit of everything. He’s not only trying to get his pitches back with a reconstructed elbow, he’s getting used to pitching with a slimmer body frame designed to ease the wear and tear on his knees.
“I think it’s just kind of searching still,” Fulmer said. “Some things work in some games and some things don’t. I’ll try to improve on the slider, changeup, four-seam, sinker, and then it takes away from something else.”
Fulmer is doing it all in small doses. The Tigers have limited him to three innings per start so far, though manager Ron Gardenhire said he could pitch into the fourth Wednesday if he has a quick inning or two. Fulmer’s last outing was his first time crossing the 60-pitch mark.
“Fulmer is a whole different animal because of how long he’s been out, two years and trying to get his body back in shape, legs underneath him, get all of his pitches together,” Gardenhire said.
The metrics aren’t great. Fulmer ranks among the bottom two percent of Major League pitchers in expected ERA, batting average and slugging percentage, according to Statcast. His 47.5-percent hard-hit rate ranks in the bottom nine percent, while his average exit velocity of 88.1 mph ranks in the bottom eight percent. Opponents are hitting .421 (4-for-19) with four home runs off his four-seam fastball even as his fastball velocity (average 93.5 mph) creeps closer to his pre-surgery average over 95 mph.
“I’ve got no excuses at this point,” he said. “It’s tough and frustrating for me. It’s just kind of an awful feeling. I feel like I’m trying something different each time out. I just have to find something that works.”
• Cameron Maybin returned to the Tigers' lineup Tuesday after missing four games with right hamstring tightness.
• Pitching coach Rick Anderson will be away from the team for the next week or so after traveling to Seattle for a family health issue, Gardenhire announced. Bullpen coach Jeff Pico will take over in his absence. Triple-A Toledo pitching coach Juan Nieves, who has been working at the alternate training site, will serve as temporary bullpen coach.