Fulmer Continues To Flourish Outside Spotlight

SAVANNAH, Ga.—Grayson Stadium is set away from the center of Savannah and its quaint city blocks and tourists attractions. So it figures Michael Fulmer would find himself pitching his home games in the low Class A Sand Gnats' home yard. The 19-year-old righthander is used to being just outside the spotlight.

The Mets selected Fulmer in the supplemental first round, 44th overall, of the 2011 draft out of Deer Creek High in Edmond, Okla. But two other Oklahoma prep righthanders went off the board before him and have subsequently stolen the spotlight. The Orioles drafted Dylan Bundy fourth overall, and the Diamondbacks took Archie Bradley three picks later at No. 7.

Bundy and Bradley pitched for Class 6-A schools that competed against one another. Scouts from every organization attended those games. Fulmer pitched in relative obscurity at his Class 5-A school an hour and a half down the road.

"It's put a little chip on my shoulder, definitely," Fulmer said. "Don't get me wrong: I've worked out with them in the offseason, and they're both great guys. But I want to climb that ladder so my name is mentioned along with theirs."

Fulmer said all three of them keep an eye on one another via the internet.

"I think it's created great competitiveness among us," he said. "It's pushed us harder all season."

The Mets pushed Fulmer even harder this spring when he was a surprise choice for the Savannah rotation—he logged all of five innings in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League last summer—bypassing extended spring training and a likely assignment with a short-season club in June.

Finding Fastball Command

Fulmer took his assignment and proceeded to make the Mets look smart. Through 20 starts for Savannah, Fulmer went 7-5, 2.54 with 93 strikeouts in 103 innings while allowing 83 hits and 36 walks. His .219 opponent average ranked first among South Atlantic League pitchers while his ERA ranked second and his 1.16 WHIP third.

"Within the organization, we saw it as a good challenge for him because we knew he had the tools to compete here," said Savannah manager Luis Rojas, who also managed Fulmer in the GCL last year. "But he's really surprised us with his baseball smarts. They're off the charts. He's always asking the right questions about different scenarios."

Aside from knowing Fulmer could handle the competition, the Mets also knew minor league pitching coordinator Ron Romanick planned to install a six-man rotation in Savannah, which even Fulmer admits has saved his arm this year. Rojas said it's why the Savannah staff led the league in with a 3.16 ERA at the start of August.

"(Romanick) knows his numbers, and it's all about helping these guys stay healthy and make it through the season," Rojas said. "It's worked great for us. I've seen results from everyone, not just Fulmer."

Fulmer traces his own success back to instructional league last fall, when he closed his hip more in his delivery to help his release point become more consistent. It was his work with Triple-A Buffalo pitching coach Mark Brewer, however, that really made the difference. Brewer focused on Fulmer's fastball command. Up until then, the righthander said he didn't have it.

"In high school, I was all over the place," Fulmer said.

Brewer forced Fulmer to throw only inside fastballs to righthanded hitters and fastballs away to lefties during simulated games. Brewer allowed him to mix in a slider and changeup here and there, but the righthander was forbidden to throw his curveball.

Fulmer said he got hit a lot, but the experience made all the difference this year. Not only is his fastball sharper, Fulmer said he is now mentally over the hump of trying to strike everyone out.

"I've learned that the expression 'less is more' is really true," he said. "Pitching to contact works."

Learning From The Best

Perhaps the most encouraging sign of Fulmer's adoption of the "less is more" philosophy was his seven-inning no-decision against the top hitting team in the SAL on Aug. 6. Though Asheville collected 10 hits, including a home run, Fulmer surrendered just two earned runs.

"He made that one mistake all night, when he left a ball up in the zone a little bit," Savannah catcher Cam Maron said. "But when guys got on, he locked in and got them to hit the ball on the ground. He didn't have his best stuff that night, but he battled through it."

When Fulmer is on, Maron almost feels sorry for opposing Sally Leauge batters.

"He has an electric arm and heavy stuff," the catcher said. "His slider is a legit put-away pitch that is absolutely unhittable when he's got it going."

Maron said Fulmer's changeup is improving. Savannah pitching coach and former big league all-star Frank Viola makes the righthander throw 10-12 changeups per start to help get comfortable with it. Fulmer said he has relished the chance to work with Viola this year.

"Frank's character is just unbelievable," Fulmer said. "He comes straight at you. If you didn't pitch well, he'll say you sucked, but he always ends it on a positive note."

Fulmer said he has absorbed every little piece of information Viola has shared.

"He's helped me with the mental side of the game, mostly," Fulmer said. "I've learned so much from him this year. I feel like I've become a better person and a better pitcher because of him."

And while Fulmer uses Bundy (who has reached Double-A Bowie in the Orioles system) and Bradley (who has spent all season with low Class A South Bend in the Diamondbacks system) as motivation, he doesn't let the attention they get consume him.

"You have to set smaller goals to realize the big ones," Fulmer said. "Before I can even think about reaching the big leagues, I need to work on my changeup and keeping my fastball down."

Grayson Stadium, he added, is as good a place as any to get that work done.

Chris Gigley is a freelancer based in Greensboro, N.C.