DETROIT -- Michael Fulmer had a Spring Training complex almost all to himself with little else to do but work. The coronavirus had shut down camps, but injured players were still allowed in to do their rehab work. With teammates heading home and much of Lakeland, Fla., locked down, Fulmer was either hunkered down with his wife and baby or at the complex to work out.
So in that sense, it shouldn’t have been a surprise to see Fulmer in better shape as he took the mound at Comerica Park for his bullpen session Friday to open Tigers Summer Camp. Still, not even teammates necessarily expected what they saw.
“I definitely didn't expect to see him as cut up as he is,” Spencer Turnbull said.
It was such a different look that, from the stands, it was difficult to recognize him as he ran the outfield after he finished throwing, his burly physique replaced with a muscular tone.
“He looks great, great shape,” manager Ron Gardenhire said.
Major League camps are full of best-shape-of-my-life stories, either from young players hitting a professional weight complex for the first time or older players trying something new to hang on. With Fulmer, the cliché might well be legit.
“I would say close to it,” Fulmer said Friday. “Maybe my basketball days in high school I was in a little better shape, but those were my 6-minute mile days, so I don’t think I can do that anymore.”
He’s in better shape because he had to be. Between his 2018 surgery to repair a torn meniscus, his third procedure in his right knee, and last year’s Tommy John surgery to repair his elbow, the wear and tear of pitching with his bigger frame had become clear. Simply changing his delivery wasn’t enough.
So with an entire weight room at his use and barely anyone else using it aside from non-roster pitcher Shao-Ching Chiang, Fulmer worked with strength and conditioning coordinators Steve Chase and Matt Rosenhamer and formulated a plan to go with his rehab.
“Honestly, I had all the time in the world to be able to work out and work on a few things down there,” Fulmer said, “so I’m thankful that they stayed open and all the help I got from those guys.”
Workouts were one facet of the change. His diet was another. For that, he can thank the shutdown, too, at least in part.
“The good thing about quarantining is you either order out for food or you learn how to cook,” Fulmer said. “Me and my wife, we started ordering meals online. They basically send you all the ingredients and you just have to cook them. They give you a little sheet that tells you exactly what to do. We did that probably three or four times a week, and … I still can’t cook. She’s gotten a lot better, though. She was the one to thank for all that.”
Along with work on his delivery, the difference is significant, which Fulmer feels when he takes the mound. His bullpen session was his first work off the mound at Comerica Park in 22 months since his last home start.
“I just feel more efficient,” Fulmer said. “I feel like I’m using my body in better ways with less stress off the elbow, less stress off the knee. So I think that was our goal going into it, just be more efficient, not so violent. Those aspects are still going to be there, but just try to find a way to put my body in the best position I can while still not sacrificing production.”
What it means in terms of his power arsenal remains to be seen. He isn’t expecting to be at his regular velocity right away, and might not get there for a while. Such is the nature of major surgery. But if he can get to that velocity with easier effort, it could help him over the long term.
Other parts of Fulmer’s game could benefit from the fitness, too, especially when he has to venture off the mound for a ball in play.
“There’s so much more than just throwing, feeling healthy,” Gardenhire said. “You have to be able to cover the bases, hold runners, all those little things, and we’re going to see where he’s at as we go along here. That’s what this spring is going to be about, trying to find the right guys and check him out. We haven’t had the opportunity. He’s been rehabbing quite a while. He feels good, looks good, and we’ll start there and let him go through this thing and see how he does.”