Verlander, Fulmer deliver 1-2 punch in starting rotation

Former AL MVP was happy to take rookie right-hander under his wing

Verlander, Fulmer deliver 1-2 punch in starting rotation

Justin Verlander has been where Michael Fulmer is now.

A decade ago, Verlander was the rookie sensation in the Tigers rotation, delivering like an experienced ace every five games and supplying the velocity behind Detroit's late-season run. Verlander was also the youngster pitching beyond his previous innings level from the Minor Leagues, trying to maintain not only his rotation spot, but the quality pitching that earned him it -- from an upper-90's fastball to a biting breaking ball.

Verlander sees the common ground they have. He has since Spring Training.

"It's kind of a similar position to what I was in, really," Verlander said during the late stages of this past season. "You've got a team that's in the middle of the playoff hunt. You have one of your better pitchers."

And as Fulmer headed toward the defining moments of his incredible rookie campaign, having ranked among the AL leaders in wins above replacement, Verlander is right there with him, just as former Tigers All-Star starter Kenny Rogers was for Verlander in 2006. Verlander has been there ever since camp, when he noticed the hard-throwing young right-hander with the big arm on the mound and his head buried in his locker in the crowded Lakeland, Fla. clubhouse.

"That's why I talked to him when he got sent down in the spring," Verlander said. "He's going to go out there and attack. That's a great combination. You have that fire to be great and the ability to do it. You can bring a pitcher out of that."

The Tigers have brought out that pitcher, with a little help from their previous rookie sensation. Verlander tried to impart the lessons he learned in his first full Major League season. Many of those lessons set up the work habits and traits that sent Verlander on his way from the AL Rookie of the Year Award winner in 2006 to the AL MVP Award winner in '11.

When the Tigers called up Fulmer near the end of April, he pitched two games after Verlander in the rotation order. When they faced the same opponent, Fulmer would study the way Verlander approached particular hitters, note what worked for the veteran, then take that into his outing. After all, they have a somewhat similar pitch selection.

"If we're pitching against the same team, I'll go back and watch his stuff because of his fastball, slider, changeup," Fulmer said late in the season. "I'll see when he uses it to guys and how their swings look against it and stuff like that, see if I can maybe pitch a guy somewhat similar.

"It's been a big help when we've pitched in the same series -- just to watch a guy like him and how he takes pitch calling into consideration. He thinks a few pitches ahead with what he's trying to do. Every pitch he throws has a purpose. I'm trying to get to that point, setting up a pitch."

By the first weekend in June, they were pitching back-to-back in the rotation, and the two would exchange ideas after games.

Fulmer also watched the way Verlander adjusted to hitters as the game went on, sometimes as at-bats went on. Verlander has a well-honed ability to read hitters' swings and apply his observations into what he wants to throw. Fulmer doesn't have nearly the experience to go as strongly on that yet, but he's trying to improve.

"I'm trying to learn, trying to watch video on swings," Fulmer said, "and I've gotten to the point where I'll watch video before all my starts and I'll write down how I would pitch certain guys according to swings they've taken on a certain pitch. And then at our pitchers' meeting on start day, I'll kind of compare notes with [catchers] Mac [James McCann] or Salty [Jarrod Saltalamacchia]. They both do a good job of reading swings.

"So I'm trying trial by error, I guess -- see if I can match what they see. It's been pretty close. There's a couple pitches where maybe we'll throw a pitch, but it has to be in this spot instead of this spot. I'm getting better, trying to learn.

"And when guys walk up to the plate that I've faced before, I kind of just quiz myself on what it says on how to pitch this guy, just try to play a game with myself and see if it matches up with whoever's throwing out there. If Anibal [Sanchez is] throwing out there, see if he throws a slider here; that's what I would throw in that situation. Or see if we throw a fastball in this situation. I'm trying to quiz myself on what the catchers see and how the starting pitchers look at it."

Not everything Verlander tried to impart was about the way to do it. For Verlander, the hard lessons of his rookie season allowed him to talk to Fulmer about maintaining his arm as his season wrapped up.

Verlander stayed out of the summer-long debate over Fulmer's workload, leaving that to manager Brad Ausmus and the staff. What he could tell Fulmer -- what he told him all summer -- was what he learned: keeping your arm fresh is about doing the exercises while you still feel fresh.

Verlander came into the big leagues with a healthy resume and a rather strong innings workload between college ball and the Minors. As the innings piled up in 2006, he stayed in the rotation, pitching every turn through Detroit's rotation from Aug. 11 until the Tigers clinched a postseason berth with a week to go in the regular season.

What Verlander hoped to impart is what he learned from that stretch run, when the kid who was throwing 100 mph fastballs in eighth and ninth innings of early-season games was struggling to get out of the low 90's in the World Series.

"I got on [Fulmer] really early on about his routine and really focusing on that," Verlander said, "because I was hoping we'd be in the playoff hunt, and I was hoping that he could help us. I remember for me, it was kind of a realization too late that I needed to work on it. And at that point, you can't make back up lost time."

Those lessons, Verlander said, involved shoulder maintenance and rookie stubbornness. He never battled fatigue in college or the Minor Leagues, so he didn't take between-starts maintenance seriously enough until he actually felt tired.

"I came in, I was in a seven-day rotation in college, and then pro ball five-man rotation for the first time in the Minor Leagues for three-quarters of the season, and I never really had to focus on my shoulder maintenance too much," Verlander said. "So I got to the Majors and [had a] kind of stubbornness - 'Hey, I'm going to keep with my routine, that's what's worked.' And once we got to the halfway point, I realized I need to strengthen some stuff here, but it was too late. So I just labored through the second half and the playoffs.

"Really, that following offseason was when I really took to shoulder maintenance and shoulder strengthening and all the stuff that you're supposed to do, that I realized you need to do. So I just didn't want him to wait, because if you wait until it's too late, then there's no catching up."

Those lessons set up the meticulous offseason routines and in-season regimens that made Verlander an innings workhorse. He didn't want Fulmer to learn the hard way. Fulmer took it to heart.

"I'm just trying to find a routine that works for me," Fulmer said. "So anything I can try, any advice I get, I'm always going to try. Hopefully I can build a routine from it."

When Fulmer went the distance at Texas, shutting out the Rangers for his first complete game at any professional level, no one was happier than Verlander.

Fulmer goes the distance

"It's never easy to throw your first complete game, those last three outs particularly," Verlander recalled, "especially in a shutout, because teams don't want to get shut out. But as the game's going on, it allows you to attack some more and save some pitches.

"I know one inning, he came up to me and mentioned, 'Hey we got a lead and we got two outs, so I'm just going to fill up the zone.' That's perfect. Even if the guy hits the ball hard, a lot of times he hits the ball right at somebody and you get a quick out. And that's how you get those eighth or ninth innings."

Verlander hopes he has helped Fulmer -- not to mention fellow youngsters Daniel Norris and Matt Boyd. He's the reigning veteran in a rotation that ended the year with three starters with less than a full season in the Majors.

It's a new role for Verlander, even though several other promising young starters have come through Detroit over the past 10 years. Verlander was still putting his game together when Rick Porcello cracked the Tigers' rotation at age 20 in 2009. Max Scherzer is just a year younger than Verlander, and Scherzer had his own routine when he joined the Tigers from Arizona in '10.

Now is the time for Verlander to be that source of wisdom. Just don't call him an elder statesman.

"I don't know if I'm any of that, man," he said. "But I help as much as I can."

Jason Beck has covered the Tigers for MLB.com since 2002. Read Beck's Blog, follow him on Twitter @beckjason and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.