Michael Fulmer on Turning a Corner with the Change

I was at Progressive Field when Michael Fulmer made the second start of his big-league career on May 5. He wasn’t very good. The Detroit Tigers right-hander gave up a four spot in the first inning and ultimately left having allowed 10 hits and five runs in five innings.

The game in Cleveland exemplified his early outings. In his first four starts, the 23-year-old rookie surrendered 14 earned runs over 19.1 innings. Then he discovered a changeup. Or, perhaps it could be said, the changeup found him.

To say Fulmer has since found success would be an understatement. Over his last 11 starts, the former Mets prospect — Detroit acquired him at last year’s trade-deadline for Yoenis Cespedes — has allowed a grand total of 11 runs over 70 innings. On the season, he has a record of 9-2 to go with a 2.41 ERA.

Fulmer talked about his ascent — including the changeup that seemingly fell from the sky — prior to last night’s game. The pitch will be on display this afternoon when he takes the mound at Fenway Park.


Fulmer on his development: “There’s hesitation when you first start out. When you’re 18 years old and going into pro ball, you don’t know what to expect. You see big-league guys playing on TV and you’re like, ‘Oh man, that’s going to be so cool. Then you get to the Gulf Coast League and you’re playing at noon. It’s hot and it rains every day. That’s not what I was expecting. I’ve had to learn how it all worked, step by step, at every level along the way.

“There are going to be low points, but you have to keep a positive attitude and try to stay level-headed. The low points can include injuries, which I dealt with in 2013 and 2014. Those can be tough, but you just have to work hard to get back, which I did with the [Mets] rehab staff. I’m back to being healthy and everything is going good.

“I trust everything a little more now. I trust going away from my fastball when I need to, and I trust throwing my fastball when I need to. I’ve learned a lot more hitter tendencies and reading swings. Setting up pitches is a big thing. Catchers and coaches have both helped me out a lot along the way.

“I stopped throwing my curveball in 2014 and started working harder on my slider and my changeup. The slider got a lot better. The changeup got alright; I just never threw really it. I didn’t trust it until I got up here and [pitching coach Rich] Dubee and Mac [James McCann] and Salty [Jarrod Saltalamacchia] sat down with me and basically said, ‘Throw your changeup more.’ So I started throwing it more and now it’s a pitch I trust.”

On developing a good changeup: “They said to work on my changeup, so I threw about 30 changeups in a bullpen and got into a rhythm with it. I kept it there and kept it there, then I threw it in the next game. It worked out. I didn’t really change anything. I mostly just trusted it. I threw it and let it do what it did.

“I did maybe loosen up the grip a bit. Before, I’d been trying to make it move and slow down rather than just trusting the grip. I don’t think [the arm angle or release point] changed.

“It’s like a Vulcan change. It’s three fingers and on the seams. My thumb is either on my finger, or it’s right on the ball underneath, depending on what I want to do with it. I wouldn’t call it having two different changeups. It’s just that when I want to slow it down, or maybe get a little more run to it, I won’t put my thumb on the ball; I’ll put it on my finger to put a little extra pressure on that finger. Other times I’ll put my thumb on the ball, almost like a circle, and try to get it to go straight down with maybe a little less fade.”

On his slider: “I just grip it and throw it with the same arm speed. I never throw a get-me-over slider. One thing I’m working on now is trying to make it sometimes like a little cutter and sometimes make it have a little more tilt. That way I can have basically two sliders. It’s the same grip. One, I’ll try to get more out in front and stay behind it a little more, and the other one I’ll try to get a little more on top of it, or around it, to try to get more tilt.”

On his two- and four-seam fastballs: “I used to throw a lot more two-seams, especially to lefties. My first four starts, that pitch got hit around a little bit, so I started throwing more four-seams and going a little more up in the zone. Getting guys to chase pitches up sets up a slider down, or a changeup down. I’m throwing a lot more four-seams now.

“I’m using the two-seam now as kind of another pitch. I’ll go first-pitch four-seam, then I’ll go second-pitch two-seam — especially first time through the lineup — to let the hitter know I have considerably different fastballs. There’s not a lot of velocity difference between the two, at least not that I know of.

“I started throwing a lot of two-seamers after I had some injuries, because my velocity was down and I wanted to try to get some more movement. I couldn’t rely on velocity like I had before. Now that I’m healthy, I can focus more on locating with my four-seam. I’m commanding the ball better than I did when I was younger. I can throw the ball up and away, and up and in. I can also throw down and away, or down and in when I need to.”

On if he considers himself a power pitcher: “I just try to get guys out. I don’t care how I do it, with one strikeout or with 15 strikeouts. Early on, I think I was trying to strike everybody out. I was amped up, the adrenaline was going. Now I’m trying to get more contact, because I want to get deeper into ballgames. At the same time, if I need a strikeout I’m going to try to get a strikeout.”

On his poor outing in Cleveland: “They have a lot of lefties and I didn’t have a changeup. I threw it a couple of times and it wasn’t any good. I also wasn’t getting ahead. I had a four-run first inning and that’s what happens when you fall behind a guy like Mike Napoli — he hits it about three-quarters of the way up the bleachers. He’s strong and he swings hard. He didn’t miss it.

“I also couldn’t throw my slider for a strike that day. That let them sit on one pitch, which was a fastball. When there are two guys on and the count is 2-0, and they pretty much know they’re going to get a fastball… that’s what Napoli was sitting on, and he got it.”

On turning things around with his changeup: “[My success] is a combination of things, but the changeup probably has the most to do with it. You get to two strikes and the hitter knows you have a fastball, a slider and a changeup… it’s getting in guys’ heads. They know it’s become a weapon for me. The way the pitch has progressed, and the way Salty and Mac have been calling games… they get a lot of credit.

“I honestly have no idea why it got good. I basically threw it in a bullpen session until I it got right, and ever since then I’ve been keeping it down and getting good action on it. I threw about 30 in a row that day — it was at Comerica Park on either May 18 or 19 — and John [Murrian], our bullpen catcher, was like, ‘Where did that changeup come from?’ I was like, ‘I don’t know; I just kind of threw it.’ He said it’s the best it’s been, and it’s pretty much stayed that way.”

David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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