LAKELAND, Fla. -- Much of the Tigers' pitching roster is already here to work out before Spring Training begins next week. Right-hander Michael Fulmer has been working out at the complex for the most part since early December. But of all the pitchers with whom Fulmer could play catch, he
LAKELAND, Fla. -- Much of the Tigers' pitching roster is already here to work out before Spring Training begins next week. Right-hander Michael Fulmer has been working out at the complex for the most part since early December. But of all the pitchers with whom Fulmer could play catch, he gets teammate Daniel Norris.
Not only does Norris test him with a big throw or two as he stretches out from center field to the right-field line on one of the back fields, his massive beard brings more attention to Fulmer playing catch up on his facial hair after going clean-shaven for a stretch.
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What stands out more about Fulmer as he throws, though, is the large brace on his right knee, a result of his surgery last year to repair a torn meniscus. He has thrown three mound sessions wearing it and he will throw another on Friday as he prepares to be ready for the start of the season. He could well end up wearing it in games like CC Sabathia has.
"Just to see if it'll help," Fulmer said. "It may be one of those things where I try it through Spring Training just to make sure everything's 100 percent and then see how I like it."
Even if Fulmer doesn't wear it during the season, the brace serves a couple of purposes for the spring. It protects his knee, but it also helps him work on his delivery to try to take pressure off of the joint. After two knee procedures over the past five years, and three total by his count, Fulmer is determined to find a way to pitch while putting less pressure on the knee, to ensure he doesn't need another surgery.
"Obviously it's not going to let me bend the way I used to, so I'm trying to make some adjustments there," Fulmer said. "But it's all good adjustments, like I need to make with the brace or without the brace. I think it's kind of like a training tool to make sure my knee doesn't bend the way it has been, especially last year."
The knee was one of the bugaboos that derailed Fulmer's 2018 season. After missing five weeks from July into August with an oblique injury, he returned for four late-season starts before soreness in his knee knocked him out of a mid-September start in Cleveland following back-to-back home runs. Those injuries came just after Fulmer built up endurance in his arm following his 2017 surgery to re-position the ulnar nerve in his elbow.
Fulmer's season ended with a 3-12 record and a 4.69 ERA over 24 starts. The knee injury left him facing another offseason with as much time in Lakeland as in his offseason home in Oklahoma. What gives Fulmer solace is that none of the injuries have involved anything more fearful. But that also gives him a twinge of frustration.
"The thing that bugs me about it is it's always something minor, I feel like," Fulmer said. "Obviously when I'm talking about major things, I'm talking about shoulder, elbow, stuff like that, your UCL, your labrum, rotator cuff. I've had none of that, and everything feels great. It's just some things you just can't control, like my knee. ...
"It always feels like we're one step away. But my thing is that my shoulder, my elbow, my arm in general has been great. That's the main thing I focus on. We can fix everything else. It's hard to fix arms. That's the one path you don't really want to go down. And I know that arm-wise the last couple seasons, I feel I could've gotten 180-200 innings."
Fulmer racked up 174 1/3 innings between Detroit and Triple-A Toledo during his American League Rookie of the Year Award season in 2016. He has thrown just over 300 innings in the previous two seasons combined.
"It feels like ages ago," Fulmer said of that rookie campaign. "But I attribute that to me being able to learn so much from this coaching staff and veteran players, just the knowledge that I have of pitching. It's above and beyond what I ever thought I'd know."
Fulmer also has learned more about biomechanics than he cared to know. If he can find that delivery that combines his usual explosiveness with his fastball without the wear and tear on the knee, he believes he can stay healthy.
"I've been down here the last two offseasons trying to get better and trying to make sure I can prevent any more injuries," he said, "but it just didn't go my way. Hopefully with all the work we put in for the last three years combined, this could be the year."
Fulmer does have one milestone coming up this month. When his arbitration case comes up, he'll become the first Tigers player to go to a hearing since Chris Holt in 2001. Fulmer has stayed out of any talks to focus on his rehab, but he plans to attend the hearing in St. Petersburg whenever he gets the call that it's on.
The hearing is no sign of animosity between him and the Tigers, he emphasized. It's simply a case of setting a value as a Super Two player with three more potential seasons of arbitration eligibility remaining.
"Comps are the biggest thing in arbitration," Fulmer said, "so if a guy signed two years ago for under what he should have, it's going to affect the guys two or three years in the future. That's kind of my thing.
"Obviously, I know what I can do when I'm healthy. Unfortunately that hasn't happened the past couple years for the full season, but I know I can get this team a lot more wins when I am healthy. And I think that's just the biggest thing that I can prove and show this organization how valuable I can be."
Jason Beck has covered the Tigers for MLB.com since 2002. Read Beck's Blog, follow him on Twitter @beckjason and Facebook.