SEATTLE — The end of the baseball season provides a welcome rest for most players. After a grueling 162-game season, players generally take some time away from the game. It’s their time to decompress, re-evaluate their season, get married, go on vacation or spend time with family.
There was no break for Chicago White Sox pitcher Carson Fulmer this offseason. While his major-league club was still playing games in September, Fulmer went to his offseason home in Seattle, and committed to training as often as possible during the winter. The 25-year-old was not going to let rain, illness or the holidays be an excuse, because he understands there’s a lot at stake in 2019.
After being selected as the No. 8 overall pick in the 2015 Major League Baseball draft, Fulmer has struggled to establish himself as a major-league asset. He’s had opportunities each year since he was drafted, but the numbers haven’t been there. In 67 1/3 innings in the majors, Fulmer has a career 6.68 ERA.
Last season was particularly difficult. Fulmer made the White Sox out of spring training as the team’s fifth starter. He lasted nine appearances with the team before he was sent to Triple-A in May. He didn’t make it back to the majors. Fulmer was surprisingly not among the team’s September call-ups.
Motivated by that snub, Fulmer dedicated himself to finding something he had lost. He turned to Driveline Baseball — a leading data-driven player development company — to recapture his old form.
For Fulmer, that decision made all the sense in the world. He had utilized similar training methods while at Vanderbilt, the college pitching powerhouse that was one of the earliest adopters of Driveline’s methods.
“The stuff they do here really maximizes your body, so I was able to really enjoy doing it in college,” Fulmer told Yahoo Sports. “I got drafted where I was based off of the stuff that I did in this program.”
Since Fulmer was familiar with the program, he knew what to expect. He knew there would be weighted balls, long toss and encouragement on pitching at max effort. The technology available at Driveline — the company has a throwing area which features dozens of hi-speed cameras placed strategically to see every part of a pitcher’s windup and throwing motion — were a big draw for Fulmer, who said he’ll use Driveline “until [his] career is over.”
“They use a lot of slow-mo,” Fulmer said. “For me personally, I’m a big visual guy. I like to see things.”
Driveline: A different philosophy from the White Sox
The decision to go to Driveline this offseason may have been influenced by one of Fulmer’s former coaches. Vanderbilt’s associate head coach Scott Brown spoke with Fulmer during the offseason, telling Fulmer he would enjoy the environment there.
Driveline has grown quite a bit since Kyle Boddy founded the company in 2012. While some of the company’s methods were questioned early on — par for the course in an industry where there are hundreds of self-proclaimed “pitching experts” on the internet — Driveline has grown in popularity in recent years.
Cleveland Indians pitcher Trevor Bauer has been one of the company’s biggest and most vocal supporters for years. It’s gotten to the point where major-league teams have noticed. A number of Driveline employees were hired by teams during the offseason.
That doesn’t mean every team is on board with Driveline’s approach. The White Sox don’t employ the “same philosophies” as Driveline, according to Fulmer.
That could make for an awkward situation now that Fulmer has reported to camp. The White Sox could view Fulmer’s time at Driveline as an indictment of the way they do things. Alternatively, the team could view it as a worthwhile gambit for a player who has struggled in the majors, especially if Fulmer impresses during spring training.
Fulmer believes that — despite the differences in philosophy — it won’t be an issue.
“[The White Sox] know I’m here,” Fulmer said earlier this winter. “I haven’t spoken to them very much about it, but I’ve seen major improvements across the whole board since I’ve been here in September. I think they are very pleased with that.
“They know I’m working extremely hard to come to spring training ready to go. They haven’t had an issue with it. There are some things they probably wouldn’t agree with, but it feels great for me. I’m just trying to do everything I can to impact the team as much as possible.”
The new and improved Carson Fulmer
What will the new and improved version of Fulmer look like? Driveline Pitching Coordinator Eric Jagers — who worked with Fulmer — said getting more depth on Fulmer’s breaking ball was one focus. Fulmer said he was hoping to tap into more velocity as well. Fulmer averaged 93.5 mph with his fastball in 2018, but believes there’s “more in the tank.”
The biggest focus, however, was getting Fulmer to be more athletic on the mound.
“I think it was a lot more about him being athletic and getting back to who he was,” Jagers said. “One of the biggest things I noticed was just the change overall in his body. He was able to get into really good shape.”
Renteria, Hahn — and a slimmer Carson Fulmer. pic.twitter.com/xBGYdPXRaj
— Daryl Van Schouwen (@CST_soxvan) February 13, 2019
“I think it’s night and day where he was at when he came in versus where he is at now.” he said. “[Getting in shape] kinda rubbed off from a mechanics standpoint. He’s able to get into better positions and have more active mobility … open up some ranges of motion that he may have had in the past but kind of got away from.”
He also plans to go back to his old mechanics.
“There have been a lot of changes for me mechanically over the past couple years. I think that’s kind of had some bad results,” Fulmer said.
Fulmer’s delivery was the topic of much discussion in the lead up to the 2015 draft. A number of outlets said it required effort. ESPN’s Keith Law believed Fulmer’s delivery would eventually lead to Fulmer winding up the bullpen, which isn’t usually the desired outcome of a pitcher drafted in the top 10.
Fulmer, however, believes his unorthodox mechanics were part of what made him effective.
“I think what makes me good is body parts flying everywhere,” he said.
Fulmer’s college coach agrees. Brown thought Fulmer’s “uptempo” delivery worked due to Fulmer’s excellent athletic ability and “tremendous body control.”
“That’s one of the things I talked to him about this offseason,” Brown said. “‘Hey, you really need to try to regain the dynamic-ness to your delivery because your delivery was special.'”
During his time at Vanderbilt, he saw Fulmer pitch with a presence, constantly attacking hitters and pitching as if he were an MMA fighter.
But since joining the majors, Brown thinks Fulmer got away from the things that made him great.
“He went away from some of his strengths with his fastball and his breaking ball and went a little bit more cutter-ish,” Brown said. “To me, it looked like he found himself down in the count quite a bit and became very predictable when he was pitching.”
Brown believes the reason for that is due to Fulmer having to change his style after he got drafted.
“I think what really ultimately happened is because he wasn’t really going at it with his type of stuff he may have lost some confidence in his abilities. To me, he looked a little bit lost out on that mound.”
While Fulmer’s mechanics will never appear in a Tom Emanski video, the White Sox are equipped to handle his frantic delivery. Chris Sale had similar concerns coming out of college, but was able to excel as a starter with the White Sox.
Part of the White Sox’s bright future?
It’s still unclear whether Fulmer’s future will come as a starter or a reliever. He’s been used in both roles over his career. Fulmer doesn’t really have a preference. He thinks relieving suits him better and feeds into his mentality, but added that he loves starting too.
Ultimately, Fulmer’s focus is on doing whatever he can to be a part of the White Sox’s future. He knows the prospects are on their way, and he’s heard the rumors about the White Sox being linked to premier free agents. He wants to be a part of the team’s resurgence.
“I think I’m a very important part of this process. I really want to make the team out of spring, which I was able to do last year, and I’m very capable of doing that,” Fulmer said. “That being said, I’ll definitely go into spring training ready to go and earn this spot.
“I think we’re really close,” Fulmer added. “We have some really good pieces coming together and [we’re] going to be really good here soon. I’m really excited about that.”
The future of the White Sox looks bright, but there’s still plenty of uncertainty facing the team. A number of spots are still unsettled moving forward. Despite his struggles, there’s still a big opportunity for Fulmer to prove he’s the guy the White Sox drafted No. 8 overall.
He won’t rest until that happens.
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