Brad Ausmus smiles when thinking back to his first impression of Michael Fulmer.
"The beard stood out,'' Ausmus said. "He kind of had a big beard.''
Fulmer was the key piece acquired by the Tigers from the Mets for Yoenis Cespedes last July. He had not pitched above Double-A when he reported to Lakeland, Fla., for Spring Training, and seemed overmatched when he first stepped onto the mound to face hitters with household names.
Starting against the Astros in Kissimmee, Fla., on March 11, Fulmer worked only one inning. He quickly walked the first two hitters he faced, Jose Altuve and George Springer, without throwing even one strike. Before he got back to the dugout, he had allowed a three-run homer to Colby Rasmus and walked Carlos Gomez on four pitches.
When pitching coach Rich Dubee and Ausmus broke down the outing afterward, their conclusion was that he needed another option to complement his fastball and slider. They stressed with Fulmer the significance of developing a third pitch, "most likely a changeup," as Ausmus remembers it.
Fulmer will take a 7-1 record and 2.52 ERA into his start for the Tigers on Friday night in Kansas City, only a little more than three months later. The Royals can expect to see at least 10 changeups and maybe even as many as 20 if it's finding the strike zone like it has been.
His new pitch is holding opposing batters to a .150 average while keeping them from sitting on the two that had been his bread and butter. That has made Fulmer an early candidate for American League Rookie of the Year and one of the top reasons that the Tigers have recovered from a 15-21 start to be one of four teams in contention for the AL Central title.
Fulmer does, as Ausmus points out, have a rather impressive beard to go with his head of long, thick dark hair. He throws hard -- his fastball averages a click above 96 mph -- and attacks hitters.
Fulmer carries a streak of 28 1/3 scoreless innings into the start. He has worked at least six shutout innings in each of his last four starts while giving up three hits or fewer every time out. The Elias Sports Bureau says he's the only pitcher since 1893 to do this.
What's been the best part for Fulmer?
"Winning,'' he said. "It's been fun. This team is awesome. They kind of welcome you with open arms. The team chemistry is great. This veteran pitching staff, I've learned so much from these guys. It's an honor to be able to learn so much day in and day out.''
The 23-year-old Fulmer is from Edmond, Okla., outside Oklahoma City. He parlayed his success with the Deer Creek High Antlers into being the 44th player taken overall in the unusually rich 2011 MLB Draft, signing with the Mets for almost $1 million (above the slot value). He's a known quantity within baseball, but only now is stepping out of the shadows cast by more highly regarded young pitchers.
During his high school career, Fulmer was overshadowed by Tulsa area products Dylan Bundy and Archie Bradley, who were selected with the fourth and seventh picks overall. He joined the Mets system at a time when they were loaded with pitching prospects.
That long list is headed by Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom and Steven Matz, and includes Zack Wheeler, Jeurys Familia and Rafael Montero. It didn't help his standing when Noah Syndergaard came aboard via trade.
Despite knee surgery that cost him most of the 2013 season, Fulmer never dropped off the radar. But there were always others ahead of him as he worked his way up the ladder.
"Those guys are going to have great careers,'' Fulmer said. "I was teammates with a lot of them. They're great teammates, good guys. It would have been an honor to pitch alongside them, but that's not the case now. I'm here now. I'm extremely happy with it. I couldn't ask for anything better, honestly.''
Trying to supplement an already loaded lineup, the Tigers traded Rick Porcello to the Red Sox for Cespedes before the 2015 season. They opted to move the free agent-to-be on to the Mets after falling into a double-digit hole behind the Royals in July. Fulmer and right-hander Luis Cessa (since traded to the Yankees for Justin Wilson) were the return in that deal. I asked Fulmer if he'd be having a breakout season if he'd stayed with the Mets.
"I don't know,'' Fulmer said. "I'm obviously happy with the trade, happy I'm here, happy I was able to learn from the guys in this clubhouse and this coaching staff. I think that's what made me better, honestly. So I don't know if I would have done the same thing with the Mets or not."
His ascent can be directly tied to his changeup. When an injury to Shane Greene prompted the Tigers to call up Fulmer in late April, he threw just four changeups among 98 pitches against the Orioles on May 15, and was tagged for five runs in 4 1/3 innings. But the light went on in the Comerica Park bullpen three days later.
"That bullpen session, I threw about 30 of them and something just clicked,'' Fulmer said.
Fulmer threw 29 changeups against the Rays on May 21. The results were immediate, as he gave up one run over seven innings while striking out 11.
Ausmus was surprised but not stunned. During his long career as a catcher, he saw Clayton Kershaw develop his trademark slider the same way. It happened in May 2009, the first full Major League season for Kershaw, who was 21.
"[He] decided he was going to mess around with a slider in the bullpen,'' Ausmus said. "I didn't catch it, but I remember asking the catcher, 'Hey, how was the slider?' 'Pretty good.' And the next start he threw it, used it a number of times, and within two starts it was his favorite breaking ball.
"Sometimes a little adjustment can flip a switch and make a pitch Major League ready. It doesn't happen a lot but it can happen.''
Fulmer provides proof every time he goes to the mound. He still leads with the beard but it's his talent that leaves the biggest impression.