“I feel like I have something to prove this year,” Michael Fulmer said.
His 2014 is off to an up and down start with two poor outings sandwiched around one good one.
Coming off a promising 2012 season with the Savannah Sand Gnats, Fulmer, the Mets’ supplemental first round draft pick in the 2011 draft at No. 44 overall, had his 2013 ruined by a torn meniscus suffered early in spring training. The injury, and the lost development time, are forcing him to repeat the Florida State League in 2014. Fulmer initially felt knee pain after throwing his first live batting practice session of STEP Camp, the pre-Spring Training gathering for Mets top prospects in Port St. Lucie and had surgery to repair his torn meniscus on March 12, 2013.
A setback in May postponed his return to game action back to June 25, when he first appeared in a Gulf Coast League game.
After two rehab starts in the GCL, Fulmer progressed to the advanced Single-A Florida State League where he made seven starts beginning on July 7. While his top-line ERA of 3.44 over 34 innings was fine, his peripheral stats were unexceptional. He fanned 29 and walked 19 for a strikeout rate of 20 percent and a walk rate of 12 percent. For context, the average FSL ERA in 2013 was 3.70, with a 19 percentstrikeout rate and with an unintentional walk rate of 8 percent. For a top prospect, just barely surpassing the league average in ERA and strikeout rate, while walking batters at 50 percent above average rates will not do.
He admits the knee, and the thought of the knee, bothered him nearly all year.
“It’s a little hard to feel right,” he said of his recovery from surgery. “It’s hard to have that same leg strength as you did before. I’m always conscious of it… It’s always there, it’s always on your mind. You tend to overcompensate for it a little bit. I don’t think I was ever 100 percent because of that. I just didn’t trust my knee like I should have."
To get ready for 2014, Fulmer, who turned 21 in March, and stands an imposing, barrel-chested 6’3” north of 200 lbs, emphasized stability training for his legs in addition to traditional strength work. The idea was that the balance would help him repeat his mechanics.
St. Lucie Pitching Coach Phil Regan, who worked with Fulmer in 2013, sees the difference two whole knees makes.
“Well, right now, he’s looking much better [than last year] and I think the reason being that he’s healthy,” Regan said by phone.
Balance is a key word and concept for Fulmer and Regan as they refine his delivery.
Regan explains that he and Fulmer have, “worked a lot on his balance, and staying over the ball, instead of coming off. ... A lot of it is in your leg kick, where he was kicking up and kicking off balance. When he was throwing the ball, he was falling off to his glovehand side.” The goal instead, Regan said, was to, “try to cut that kick down and get him going directly to home plate, instead of off to the side.”
Fulmer can feel the change.
“We’re working on staying back a little more," he said. "Trying to develop getting that power back into my legs and my knee again. I’ve worked with him all of Spring Training, and I’ve worked with him these two starts. After that first start, he kinda tweaked little things with my leg kick, kinda turned my backside again and really driving through the pitch and reaching that outside part of the plate to a righty and I think everything’s fallen into place.”
In Fulmer’s first start of 2014, he allowed seven runs on 11 hits, including a home run, in just 3.2 innings to Palm Beach on April 5. The adjustment seemed to work. In his second start, he held Fort Myers to one run on five hits in seven innings, with five strikeouts and no walks. His third start was worse than his first: 2.1 innings, nine hits, eight runs, all earned, one walk, two strikeouts and a home run allowed.
Regan boasted about Fulmer’s stamina at the end of his second start.
“The last pitch he threw, he struck a hitter out at 95 miles per hour, so he maintained all through the ball I thought,” Regan said.
In fact, the coach thought his pupil did most of the things a pitcher can do well.
“He got his breaking ball over. Had a pretty good changeup. He was pounding the strike zone,” he said of his good outing.
Not surprisingly, a healthy pitcher is a happier pitcher.
As Regan put it bluntly: “He’s a great kid. He’s opened up a little more this year, personality-wise. He seems to be enjoying himself a little more this year, which I guess is maybe natural if you’re healthy.
In addition to his four-seam fastball and slider, Fulmer added a two-seam sinking fastball to his arsenal for 2014.
“I’ve really been working, especially this offseason, on a two-seam sinker and my changeup," Fulmer said. "I think those two pitches have developed tremendously. I’m using both of those a lot more and keeping hitters off balance and try to induce a lot of ground balls.”
Fulmer’s groundball rate was below league average in both Savannah in 2012 (38.2 percent to a league average rate of 44.2 percent) and St. Lucie in 2013 (34.9 percent to 42.5 percent). So far this year, after generating five ground ball outs in his first start, but just one in his second, when he induced 10 air outs, and three grounders in his third start, he’s picked up ground balls 39% percent of the time. That's below average; the FSL in 2014 has induced grounders at a 46% rate.
Fulmer began 2013 as Noah Syndergaard’s throwing partner early in Spring Training when Syndergaard was the new guy in camp. Now, just over a year later, Syndergaard, also 21, has zoomed ahead, up to big league spring training and Triple-A, on the cusp of his big league debut in 2014.
After three starts in the FSL in 2014, Fulmer owns an ERA of 11.08 and has allowed 25 hits in 13 innings. The good news statistically? He's struck out 11 batters and walked just one.
Fulmer’s mantra on his path to proving himself again in 2014: “Every start I’m going to go out and try to get better. Every day, I’m going to try to get better, as a player and as a person.”