DETROIT -- The mantra from Tigers pitching coach Rick Anderson keeps registering with Michael Fulmer.
“Rick keeps telling me, 'This year is going to make you a better pitcher,'” Fulmer said.
Anderson didn’t mean Fulmer would return to throwing 98 mph fastballs in his first season back from Tommy John surgery. Nor did he mean that Fulmer would be racking up wins, though his three scoreless innings Friday gave the Tigers a chance in a frustrating 1-0 loss to the Indians at Comerica Park.
Anderson meant the nuances of pitching. By Fulmer having to take the mound every fifth game with whatever stuff he had, the right-hander has had to learn more about the art of pitching than he did when he tore through opposing hitters as the American League Rookie of the Year Award winner in 2016. It hasn’t often been evident in the results, but three or so innings at a time, Fulmer has had a summer course on pitching.
“I feel like I know how to manipulate a ball a lot better as far as spin, especially on the fastball -- a little cut here, a little sink there,” Fulmer said. “I think, just [my] command is a lot better going forward, as well. I know it hasn't been very sharp this year, but I think the past few starts have been a lot better, more efficient mechanics, less stress on the body and I think the velocity will ultimately come back next year, for sure. I just have to work with what I have.”
What he had wasn’t necessarily pretty on Friday, but it was effective. Fulmer didn’t throw a pitch faster than 94 mph, he struck out two and induced swings and misses on just three of his 44 pitches, but he broke more bats than he allowed base hits (one) over three scoreless innings. Cleveland’s hardest-hit ball off him, a Tyler Naquin fly ball to the left-field warning track, had a 97.8 mph exit velocity, according to Statcast. It was the only ball hit harder than 92 mph off Fulmer, which was right around his average fastball velocity on a chilly Michigan evening at autumn’s onset.
“That’s the best three innings that he’s had,” manager Ron Gardenhire said. “I mean, everything looked really good.”
It won’t look as impressive as his six strikeouts over three scoreless innings in Milwaukee on Sept. 1, but to him, it was better pitching. The results were better than the nine runs Fulmer allowed over his previous two starts, despite feeling like he had similar stuff last Saturday against the White Sox, save for command. It certainly beat the eight runs on 10 hits he yielded over back-to-back outings against Cleveland last month.
“As far as a result-oriented standpoint, it's been a rough year, and I feel bad for that. I feel frustrated for that,” Fulmer said. “But on the other hand, I do feel every start is getting better stuff-wise, command-wise, sharpness, late break -- stuff like that. And my main goal is just to miss barrels. I'm not trying to miss bats. I'm trying to get efficient innings, because I do want to get into the fourth inning, and that's how you do it. You don't go up there and go full counts on everybody and try to strike everybody out. You try to get ahead, which I haven't been able to do. Tonight was a little better.”
It doesn’t mean this is the pitcher Fulmer will be for the rest of his career. But whatever stuff he ultimately regains next year -- the key second season back from surgery in which many pitchers feel closer to their old form -- he’ll know how to use it better. This is what Fulmer has been working toward, from a throwing program that has gone on nonstop since last fall, continuing in Lakeland, Fla., through baseball’s Spring Training shutdown this spring, and into an in-season program that included two throwing sessions between starts.
Friday’s deciding run scored long after Fulmer left. It ultimately came down to a Delino DeShields fifth-inning triple against a shifted outfield off Tyler Alexander. The hit landed just beyond Victor Reyes’ reach in center field to allow DeShields to take third base and set up Francisco Lindor’s sacrifice fly.
“We align our outfielders how they normally hit balls out there,” Alexander said. “I didn’t question it, and I don’t think in the scouting report it said to throw him a hanging slider right down the middle. That’s part of the game. I’m going to throw bad pitches. They’re going to put good swings on the ball.”