After offseason of rediscovery, Carson Fulmer ready to jump back into White Sox future plans

After offseason of rediscovery, Carson Fulmer ready to jump back into White Sox future plans

GLENDALE, Ariz. — “I just wasn’t myself, plain and simple.”

These are the words coming from Carson Fulmer, former College Pitcher of the Year and the White Sox first-round pick in 2015.

“I love the environment, I love big crowds. I love the chance of putting my team in a great position to win, and I lost that. I lost that for a while. It was very hard to understand how and why I lost that,” Fulmer said in an interview with NBC Sports Chicago.

This is not the story, nor the career, Fulmer envisioned for himself when he was projected to be a future star in the majors after going 14-2 with a 1.83 ERA in his final season at Vanderbilt.

His college coach, Tim Corbin, who coached All Stars like David Price and Sonny Gray, called Fulmer “the strongest-willed kid we’ve had come through” and compared him to boxer Joe Frazier. “He’d just keep coming and keep throwing punches.”

Now four years after being drafted, Fulmer finds himself fighting to get back in the majors and to get back to being an important piece of the White Sox future. He’s been knocked down, particularly last year. He opened the season in the White Sox rotation as their fifth starter but made only eight starts before being sent down to Triple-A Charlotte, where his struggles continued and he was eventually moved to the bullpen.

But he’s arrived at spring training standing tall, minus more than 15 pounds and his trademark wavy hair. He cut most of it off. He’s lighter, wiser and he promises to be better.

“I’ve heard from a lot of veteran guys that I’ve played with over the last three years that you’ve got to be able to control the environment and the situation, and if you don’t, the game will speed up on you and that’s exactly what happened to me,” Fulmer said. “That’s something I was never used to.”

And losing? Failing? Last year was completely unchartered territory for him. He had an 8.07 ERA in 32.1 innings with the White Sox, a 5.32 ERA with the Knights and didn’t receive a call back to the majors in September.

“I never really faced that much failure in my career,” Fulmer said. “Obviously, the end of last year didn’t work out the way I wanted to. It just really drove me to figure out some things about myself.”

That meant going back to his offseason home in Seattle and joining up with Driveline Baseball, a data-driven player-development company that follows many of the methods he used at Vanderbilt. Fulmer says the White Sox didn’t have a problem with him trying something new, or old, in this case. Among those joining him at Driveline were major league pitchers Adam Ottavino and Trevor Bauer.

“We all threw with each other. We all pushed each other. It was just a great environment and position to be in. I learned a lot about my body and what it’s capable of doing,” Fulmer said.

Even before taking the mound for his first Cactus League game of the year Saturday against the Los Angeles Dodgers, Fulmer says he’s already exceeded his expectations coming into camp.

“I’m definitely in a great place now. Physically I feel really, really strong. I feel healthy. I’m back to some of the routines that gave me the opportunity to be in this position in the first place,” Fulmer explained.

That includes a quick, compact delivery where he drives down the mound toward home plate.

“I got away from that for a while, and I think it kind of messed with my control a little bit, and my power. I felt like a lost a lot of velocity and just needed to get back being strong and athletic. I feel great. I looked at a lot of college video and early on video I had in pro ball and it’s pretty close to it now.”

While it might seem like Fulmer was drafted like a decade ago, he only turned 25 in December. Considering his college success and maturity, the White Sox fast-tracked him to Chicago in 2016, one year after being drafted, figuring he was ready for The Show.

Looking back now, Fulmer acknowledges he wasn’t as prepared for the major leagues as he thought he was.

“I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to go up and go to the big leagues so early in my career, but there were a lot of things I didn’t know about the big leagues,” Fulmer said. “The big leagues was a dream come true and I think I got caught up in that a little bit. Being up three times already and going into my fourth season, I have a lot of memories, a lot of experiences I can look back on. I know what I need to do to get ready for this year. This is the best I’ve felt by far, even dating back to college. This is the best I’ve felt mentally and physically. I’m definitely ready for the opportunity.”

As a starter or a reliever?

“I just know that I have to get to the big leagues and I have to have success. If that’s starting or relieving, I have to help this team win. I’ll play any role they want me to be,” he said. “Starting with the ball and ending with the ball is something I’ve always loved to do as a starter, but as a reliever I love to pick the starting pitcher up and really lock down situations I’ve been called upon to take care of.  Anything.

"Any opportunity I can have to help this team win is something I look forward to this year.”

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What does the future hold for Carson Fulmer? White Sox still have high hopes

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USA TODAY

What does the future hold for Carson Fulmer? White Sox still have high hopes

Tim Anderson is the shortstop of the future. Carlos Rodon seems a logical choice to be the Opening Day starter. Zack Burdi, Zack Collins, Jake Burger, Nick Madrigal — they all pop up on the list of top prospects in the organization.

They're all first-round picks of the White Sox in the last six drafts, and they could all end up playing significant roles in the White Sox bright future, one that's planned to yield a perennial contender on the South Side.

But you'll notice there's someone missing from that list.

Yes, the White Sox spent the No. 8 pick in the 2015 draft on Carson Fulmer, a name many White Sox fans might have already moved to the back of their minds despite the fact that he pitched for the big league team as recently as last May, and certainly one that few of those fans are including in their own long-term roster projections.

But the potential for Fulmer to wind up playing a significant role once the franchise shifts from rebuilding mode to contending mode still exists.

Skeptical? You're not alone. A fan stood up at SoxFest and made no effort to beat around the bush in asking Rick Hahn why Fulmer has been such a disappointment. Hahn provided a quippy retort: "So part of the Carson Fulmer fan club’s here tonight, good to see."

But the question wasn't exactly without merit, even if it was phrased a little bluntly and in a fashion that assumes that Fulmer will never contribute again at the big league level.

Though he made the Opening Day rotation, his 2018 season was nightmarish: an 8.07 ERA with 24 walks and just 29 strikeouts in 32.1 innings. He was quickly dispatched to the minors after his three May starts all came to abrupt endings and he allowed a total of 17 earned runs in only 7.1 innings.

And things didn't go much better at Triple-A Charlotte. Fulmer had a 5.80 ERA with 32 walks in 45 innings in his nine starts after getting sent down. But then the White Sox moved him to the bullpen, and things got better. In 16 relief appearances to close out the season, Fulmer posted a 4.37 ERA with only nine walks in 22.2 innings. See? Better.

It might not be enough to convince the skeptics that there's a role to play for the only recent first-round pick who's been cast aside by the fan base. But Hahn and the White Sox are keeping the faith.

Hahn's actual response to that fan's question touted the organization's belief that Fulmer can one day live up to that top-10 potential, even if it's as a bullpen pitcher rather than a dominant starter.

"Carson was probably the best college pitcher in the country when he was taken out of Vanderbilt, has — what the scouts would put on the 80-20 scale — 80 makeup. So the raw ingredients are there and the commitment to being great is there," Hahn said. "Quite frankly, he got rushed a little bit to the big leagues. He was put into a bullpen role after being a starter in the 2015 season. It was a rush to try to plug a hole in the major league bullpen.

"That probably didn’t do him a service for the long term, but it doesn’t change the fact that he still has that talent and still has that makeup behind him. ... There’s reason to be optimistic about him getting back to that stature he had when we took him.

"Right now, we’ll see how it plays out in the bullpen. Don’t rule anything out, given that he’s been there before and has the repertoire to do it (be a starting pitcher). But let’s start with success in shorter spurts and go from there."

Based purely on results, Fulmer's long-term future does appear to be a bit of a mystery. But the White Sox seem intent on doing what they can to make him a part of their bullpen of the future. When a return to the majors is possible, who knows?

But like a supervillain fleeing the scene of the crime, it seems you haven't seen the last of Carson Fulmer.

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What did White Sox prospects do yesterday? More trouble for Carson Fulmer in the minor leagues

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NBC SPORTS CHICAGO

What did White Sox prospects do yesterday? More trouble for Carson Fulmer in the minor leagues

Here's your daily update on what the White Sox highly touted prospects are doing in the minor leagues.

Triple-A Charlotte

The good news is that Carson Fulmer only issued one walk in his fourth start at Charlotte since being demoted from the big league club. The bad news is he allowed six runs, five of which were earned, on nine hits, including two homers, in just five innings in this 6-2 loss. Fulmer's 3.68 ERA over those four starts isn't too terrible, but a lot of hitters have reached base against him. In 22 innings, Fulmer's walked 15 batters and given up 19 hits.

Double-A Birmingham

Spencer Adams allowed just one run over six innings in this 3-2 loss. Adams is in a nice groove lately, with one earned run allowed in 21 innings over his last three starts. Eloy Jimenez, Zack Collins and Seby Zavala each had a hit in this one.

Class A Winston-Salem

Joel Booker had two hits, including a double, in this 2-1 win. Micker Adolfo had a hit, and Blake Rutherford scored a run.

Class A Kannapolis

Luis Robert, Luis Gonzalez and Luis Curbelo each had a hit in this 4-1 win.