“All the help he’s given me, starting in spring training and for not knowing who I was, for him to kind of help me along with everything, it really got me going a little bit,” Fulmer said.
Four months later, they are tied together as two of the best rookie pitchers in Tigers history, separated by a decade. It was during Detroit’s baseball renaissance in 2006 that Verlander burst onto the scene, starting a stretch of success that appears to be gaining steam in his early 30s. It is now that he’s beginning to pass that torch to Fulmer, in both confidence and knowledge, starting with those chats and a pick-me-up after the youngster was optioned to minor league camp, and continuing throughout the regular season.
Verlander told him then, in late March, that he liked watching him pitch. It was a small compliment that made a big mark.
“It meant so much,” Fulmer said. “I told him, like, ‘Man, that’s awesome to hear. I appreciate you saying that. It truly means a lot.’ And it gave me confidence that, ‘Wow, I could eventually be teammates with Justin Verlander’ and now that I’m here, he keeps helping me and I’m always asking him questions and he’s kind enough to answer them.”
These days, Fulmer is not only a teammate, but he makes up the second half of a 1-2 punch the Tigers hope can power them through the stretch run and back to the postseason. He’s 10-4 with 104 strikeouts and just 33 walks in 125 2/3 innings. He leads the American League in earned-run average at 2.58 and is the frontrunner for the AL Rookie of the Year Award. He is even being talked about with Verlander for the AL Cy Young Award as well.
The Tigers need him more than ever and continue to face questions about his workload going forward. They would like to limit his innings but can’t shut him down. He brushes the constant questions off, saying he’ll do whatever the team asks. The Tigers announced Friday that his next start would be pushed back after a rough loss to the Red Sox.
But as the summer rolls on, approaching a career high in professional innings, Fulmer says his body feels better than ever, and perhaps, in some small part, it’s due to the shoulder strengthening regimen Verlander got him started on earlier in the season.
“It’s kind of a similar position to what I was in, really,” Verlander said. “Being on a team that’s in the middle of the playoff hunt, you got one of your better pitchers and it’s a big blow if you take him out of the rotation. I got on him really early on about his routine and really focusing on that, because I was hoping we would be in the playoff hunt, and I was hoping that he could help us.”
Around this time in Verlander’s rookie season, his arm was starting to tire. Throughout college and a short stint in the minor leagues — and maybe out of stubbornness, he admitted — he didn’t focus on shoulder maintenance. Halfway through the 2006 season, as he became one of the pitching pillars the Tigers leaned on, he realized he needed to strengthen some stuff.
“But it was too late,” Verlander said. “I realized that there was some stuff you need to do and so I just didn’t want him to wait because if you wait until it’s too late, then there’s no catching up.”
And when Fulmer was called up by the Tigers in early May, he was the same way. He did a small bit of strengthening work with stretch bands while with the New York Mets but didn’t adhere to it the way Verlander, a seasoned veteran, does.
“I just got talking to Ver and he just kind of gave me some tips on what he does and I tried it for a couple weeks and I felt like I came back and bounced back stronger on my start day, so I’ve been doing it ever since,” said Fulmer, who was traded to the Tigers in July 2015 in a deal that sent outfielder Yoenis Céspedes to the Mets.
The exercises focus on external rotation of the shoulder, using manual pressure applied by trainers. The pitchers will extend their arms like a Y, then a T, then an I. In total, it takes about five or six minutes on days after starts and bullpen sessions.
The thought process is that the exercises wear the shoulder down a little bit more while building strength as it’s fatigued.
“The way I look at it is, I’m not hurting, so I guess it works,” Fulmer said. “I don’t know where I would be if I didn’t do it, but since I’ve been doing it, I’ve been feeling great. I’ve been giving a lot of credit to that and to Ver for helping me with it.”
From Fulmer’s perspective, he’ll try anything once. Especially if it comes from a six-time All-Star who has been through the ups and downs of a decade in baseball, and once was standing in the same shoes.
When Verlander was in his prime, winning the AL Cy Young and Most Valuable Player awards in 2011, Fulmer was a senior at Deer Creek High School in Edmund, Okla., admiring him from afar.
“I knew he could pitch,” he said. “Now, being up here with him, I see why.”
And this season, he’s getting a first-hand learning experience on the fly.