DETROIT -- It was his first spring training since joining the Detroit Tigers in a trade the previous season, so virtually everything was unfamiliar. The setup in Lakeland, Florida; the coaching staff, including newly hired pitching coach Rich Dubee, and an entirely new roster of teammates.
Michael Fulmer came in as the club’s top-ranked prospect, with plenty of pressure and high expectations. So the 23-year-old was frustrated by his underwhelming performance in a spring start against the Houston Astros, one of his first opportunities to show the Tigers brass what he could do.
When Justin Verlander approached him the following day to ask how it went, Fulmer had a tough time concealing his disappointment. Verlander, the 33-year-old ace, motioned for Fulmer to follow him. He produced scouting reports on the Astros and spent the next half hour poring over the data with Fulmer and giving him guidance on how best to interpret the information at his fingertips.
“I was kind of astonished by this,” Fulmer told ESPN.com earlier this month. “He sat me down for 30 minutes and took out a scouting report on the Astros and walked me through it -- what pitches you should throw here and here and, 2-0, this guy is batting this against the slider, or this against the fastball away. I was very, very honored to be able to sit down with him and talk about that. 'Cause I didn’t ask him at all; he just approached me to do it. Especially the first big-league spring training, a guy like him sitting down with me like that, it's been a huge help. And it’s carried on into the season.”
That would be a bit of an understatement.
Fulmer has done more than just impress with his talent. He turned a call-up in April -- made out of necessity due to an injury to Shane Greene -- into a legitimate audition, and with that he simply dazzled, not just with his stuff, but with his poise and maturity as well. The Oklahoma City native was not lights-out immediately, but he was good enough to earn an extended stay, and after his first four starts, he went on a run that set him apart from any other pitcher in Tigers history.
Fulmer managed to consecutively pitch 33.1 scoreless innings, the second-longest streak of its kind by a rookie pitcher in the last 45 years, trailing only Fernando Valenzuela (35 innings, 1981), according to Elias Sports Bureau. It was the longest scoreless streak of any pitcher -- regardless of service time -- in a Tigers uniform since 1961. Only recently did it come to an end, when Kansas City Royals catcher Salvador Perez launched a two-run bomb in this past weekend’s series.
Though the streak has come to an end, Fulmer’s ascent seems to be still in its infancy, with his pitching abilities and confidence growing each time he takes the mound. Fulmer was always a player the Tigers had high hopes for, but for whom the club felt extra seasoning was likely needed. The former first-round pick had different ideas, though, and did exactly as he intended when he was first summoned to make his MLB debut: He forced the Tigers' hand and earned a spot in the club’s rotation, behind Verlander and No. 2 starter Jordan Zimmermann.
“It's a lot of fun to watch,” Verlander told ESPN.com. “Like a lot of people -- myself included -- saw this spring, he's not scared. He's got a great mentality on the mound. He's got great stuff, so he's going out there and attacking guys and having a lot of success. It's been a real shot in the arm for our team.”
Indeed, his presence has steadied a rotation that previously had some serious question marks after Verlander and Zimmermann, particularly during a prolonged stretch of struggles for Anibal Sanchez, who has since been moved to the bullpen.
Manager Brad Ausmus was asked recently about the key to the talented young flamethrower’s emergence.
“I think the changeup,” Ausmus said. “The development of his changeup and his growing comfort with the big-league atmosphere.”
Fulmer has employed his changeup significantly more since his first four starts. According to ESPN Stats & Info, Fulmer threw his changeup only 6 percent of the time in his first four starts (when he relied heavily on his fastball and slider). Since then, he has used the pitch 17 percent of the time, and it has been effective.
Adding that third pitch to keep hitters off balance has been huge, especially with his high-90s fastball and wipeout slider that has baffled opponents.
Heading into Fulmer’s start Wednesday, opponents have hit just .118 against his slider (8-for-68), according to ESPN Stats & Info. Entering this week, hitters’ batting average (.118) and slugging percentage (.176) against Fulmer’s slider were comparable to those against Clayton Kershaw's slider (.118 and .169).
Not bad company to share.
Fulmer finds himself in the middle of a lot of heady comparisons these days, most of which he either tries to shrug off sheepishly or grant deference to. The two names mentioned most: Roy Oswalt and Verlander.
The parallels to the latter are extremely encouraging for Tigers fans. Verlander had a similar start to his career in Detroit, going 7-2 in his first 10 starts of the 2006 season, with a 2.55 ERA, 1.10 WHIP and 5.2 strikeouts per 9 innings pitched (K/9), according to ESPN Stats & Info. Fulmer has recorded a 7-3 record in his first 10 starts of 2016, with a 2.43 ERA, 1.18 WHIP and 8.7 K/9.
“I take it as a big compliment,” Fulmer said. “Just seeing the career that JV has had, it's remarkable. [He had] his 2,000th strikeout a couple weeks ago. That kind of a milestone, I’m just happy to be a part of it, as a teammate of his right now.”
One thing Verlander remembers as being particularly challenging during his 17-win 2006 season, in which he finished with a 3.63 ERA in 186 innings and earned rookie of the year, was the toll that workload took both physically and mentally.
“I think the toughest thing was just the innings, the workload, for me. And I've harped on him about that -- conditioning your arm, your routine,” Verlander said. “You need to get where you need to be to throw however many innings you need to.”
The Tigers have not set a hard limit on his innings, but it’s something that has already generated discussion and will continue to be monitored. Fulmer pitched 124.2 innings last season and the Tigers do not want to see him exceed more than 20-25 percent more than that, which puts him around 150-155 innings.
Should Fulmer remain in the starting rotation, he is on track to make 26 starts. He’s on pace to log about 154 innings, according to ESPN Stats & Info. Don’t forget that this would be in addition to the 15.1 innings he threw in Triple-A.
The Tigers aren’t worried about that now, and neither is Fulmer.
Fulmer, who regularly heaps praise upon his defense and catchers in postgame press briefings, is just trying to remain humble and grounded. There’s plenty of time for him to make his mark. But even he recognizes he has a long road ahead to get to where he needs to be.
“It takes years, it really does. A lot of the pitchers in this room have shown it, that they’re of that stature. I just try to take one start at a time, one batter at a time, one pitch at a time. That’s all I can do. You’ve got to control what you can control,” Fulmer said. “Once the ball leaves my hand, it's not my problem anymore. It’s a hitter’s problem. I just try to execute my pitches the best I can and pray for the best.”