The future is bright for college baseball’s top pitcher

(First appeared in The Vanderbilt Hustler)

What you see is what you get when it comes to Carson Fulmer:

An intense competitor.

A nasty three-pitch mix.

An all-out mentality and delivery.

All three of those factors have allowed Fulmer to become the most dominant pitcher in the nation, earning him SEC Pitcher of the Year and Golden Spikes Award finalist honors – the only pitcher to receive a nomination.

Vanderbilt head coach Tim Corbin has heaped seemingly hyperbolic praise on Fulmer – calling him a once in a lifetime player – but Fulmer has been able to back it up. His level of dominance is just striking.

Fulmer won the SEC Pitching Triple Crown, leading the conference in wins, ERA and strikeouts. To this point, his 147 strikeouts blow away LSU’s Alex Lange, who is second in the conference with 110 strikeouts.

His home ERA was a miniscule 0.80, and he gave up one or fewer earned runs in 11 of his 14 starts, eight of which were shutout performances. He struck out more batters than innings he pitched in all but one start, and he struck out at least 11 in half his starts.

But even though his college career is not over, one of the biggest nights of his life is coming up in less than a week. On June 8, he will be selected in the Major League Baseball First-Year Players Draft.

Fulmer is projected by most experts to go among the top ten picks in the draft, potentially in the top five. The average signing bonus value for a top ten pick is $4.9 million bonus, and the average signing bonus value for a top five pick is $6.3 million bonus.

Where a team ends up taking him in the draft is very much up in the air. Whereas the entire baseball industry sees Fulmer as one of — if not the — most dominant pitcher in college, opinions greatly differ on how successful he’ll be at the next level.

“The big question (I’ve gotten from scouts) was if I could either start or relieve,” Fulmer said. “I’ve wanted to start for a very long time. I kept my mouth shut and tried to help the team in any way I could. I was able to get a chance to start, and I’ve loved it ever since.”

Teams spend inordinate amounts of money to travel and scout players, but each team still has different preferences and processes and comes up with different reports on each player. Scouting is an inexact science, but how teams evaluate players like Fulmer will largely shape their immediate future on the 8th.

The makeup

If there’s one part of Fulmer’s game that the entire baseball industry can agree upon, it’s his makeup, the industry term for character. Teams have been scouting him since high school, and his reputation precedes him.

“He’s widely known to be a very positive, plus makeup guy,” said one major league executive. “He gives a great effort every time, he’s a good teammate, his makeup I don’t think is in question by any team.”

Vanderbilt’s coaches have been very impressed with this over the years. Pitching coach Scott Brown points out that he even makes every single conversation, bullpen and practice important.

Much of that attention to detail comes from the most notable aspect of his makeup: his seemingly relentless competitiveness.

“I think it goes without saying that he’s a very intense, competitive guy,” said another front office executive. “You don’t have to have a history on him to know that. You can watch him for a day and realize the guy’s a competitor. We love the makeup of the kid. Our impression of him is that he’s a great guy, and he’s obviously a fearsome competitor, and it’s one of the things that really stands out.”

Fulmer has always been deeply competitive, and it is in large part thanks to his family.

Fulmer, 21, is rather close to his family and is the youngest of five siblings. He has two older sisters, 32 and 46, and two older brothers, 27 and 31, with whom he would play outside all the time.

“My brothers and I have had some instances where’ve gotten into it,” Fulmer said. “We were always outside playing. Flag football would turn into tackle football, that kind of stuff. (My brothers were) bigger than I was at the time, and I feel like that just fueled the fire even more for me.”

His sheer competitiveness has led to another one of his signature attributes: attacking hitters at a high level throughout the game, and using an all-out, max-effort delivery for the entire game.

Some pitchers feel the need to pace themselves throughout a start to make sure they can last as long as possible. That is not the case for Fulmer.

“The beauty of Carson is he throws every inning like he’s trying to close the game out and get off the field,” Brown said. “The thing with Carson is that he also has the ability to go to another gear too. Where he does get into trouble, then boom, he’s just got this mentality where he’s just not going to let them score.”

Fulmer has put that extra gear on full display down the stretch of this season. After allowing a first-inning run against Alabama, he allowed just two hits and no runs over the final eight frames. And after allowing a third inning run in the regional opener, Fulmer didn’t allow a hit or run the rest of his seven-inning start.

Makeup may be a harder attribute to quantify than velocity or break on a curveball, but front offices pay very close attention to this aspect because even the best pitching prospects have high attrition rates.

“When you talk about makeup, you talk about competitiveness, you talk about work ethic, you talk about knowing how to play the game,” another front office executive said. “It’s all going to help you reach your potential. I think in any profession, the better the makeup, the better chance you have to succeed.”

The repertoire

Along with very good makeup, the other undeniable part of Fulmer’s game is his strong repertoire of pitches.

Fulmer has one of the better three-pitch mixes in college baseball, which has allowed him to ascend to the third overall draft prospect and top pitcher ranking, according to MLB.com’s Jim Callis and Jonathan Mayo currently.

On the 20-80 scouting scale, MLB.com grades his fastball as a 70, his curveball as a 60, and his changeup as a 50. No pitcher in the draft has a higher grade on his fastball than Fulmer, and only UC-Santa Barbara’s Dillon Tate has a higher grade on his curveball (65).

“He has present velocity that other guys don’t have,” one major league executive said. “He has present pitches that other guys don’t have, he has the makeup that other guys don’t have, so there’s a lot of things that build into why a guy gets drafted where he does.”

Fulmer’s repertoire has been above-average since the moment he stepped on campus, but working with Brown and the Vanderbilt coaching staff has allowed him to gain consistency on his pitches.

Brown slightly altered Fulmer’s delivery by having him anchor his back foot to the rubber out of the windup, similarly to Sonny Gray, which helps Fulmer keep his landing foot consistently on line. Having Fulmer consistently pitching downhill allows for better downward action on his pitches compared to horizontal movement, which can be harder to control.

“That breaking ball is a legitimate fear factor out pitch,” Brown said. “It’s hard to lay off of, and it’s a pitch that I think is an above-average major league pitch for him. The difference to me this year is the ability to throw it for more strikes. He throws it behind in the count, and that’s really helped him.”

Fulmer’s one-two punch of his fastball and curveball has allowed him to dominate through the college ranks, and several front office members have pointed out those pitches and his overall polish could lead to him helping a major league team out later this year out of the bullpen, similarly to 2014 first-round pick Brandon Finnegan with the Kansas City Royals.

If he wants to have a good chance at being a starter long-term, though, further developing his changeup will go a long way to determining his success.

“Some guys can throw those two pitches and never develop that changeup, but it’s hard to go out there with two hard pitches,” one front office member said. “You can go out there and blow a guy out of the water in relief; it’s easy. You just need something else to get them off those pitches to start.”

The role

And that is the biggest question for Fulmer: Can he start at the next level?

Whichever team drafts him likely believes he can be a starter, but there are plenty of scouts who don’t see it that way, such as ESPN’s Keith Law, who ranks Fulmer as the 43rd-best draft prospect because he does not believe Fulmer will be a starter as a professional.

“I think it’s a legitimate question,” one front office member said. “I think you always have concerns about guys like that sticking as a starter. You have concerns about guys who are not as tall and short pitchers. Guys that have gone to Vanderbilt, you look at Sonny Gray. A lot of guys thought he was a reliever out of the draft.”

Shorter pitchers — Fulmer is listed at 6-foot — often are prone to giving up home runs because they aren’t able to get as good of a downward plane on pitches as taller pitchers can. This hasn’t been a major issue for Fulmer yet, however, as he only allowed home runs on 4.3 percent of his fly balls over his college career, compared to the major league average of 10 percent.

More concerning than his height to most, though, is his all-out delivery, which many believe leads to poor command and potential health concerns related to extra stress being placed on the shoulder and elbow.

“My way of pitching is a little different I guess than other guys,” Fulmer said. “Obviously I don’t have the height, but I try to get my body going towards home plate, and that’s what works for me. That’s something I’ve definitely tried to maintain throughout the year. I just try to be competitive.”

Fulmer starts his delivery with his hands high, and close to his chest. He drops his hands, brings them back up, and quickly explodes towards the plate in an almost violent motion.

“People would probably describe (his delivery) as a little bit different because it’s got a high pace to it,” Brown said. “But you’re talking about a martial arts guy that’s a black belt and has the ability to control his body at a high pace. For me, I don’t really see a guy that’s out of control. I see a guy (whose) pistons to his engine are working the way he wants to.”

Having an abnormal or max-effort delivery isn’t a death sentence to pitchers; each pitcher is different. Just as many undersized pitchers have found success, there are plenty of cases throughout history of pitchers with abnormal deliveries starting and having great careers.

“Sometimes special guys can do special things that normal guys can’t, and they can get away with it,” one major league executive said. “If you look throughout history at some of the deliveries Hall of Famers have had, you can find so many flaws with them. It’s just a matter of whether or not on a case-by-case basis certain guys can just be great. Some deliveries of Hall of Famers decades ago would terrify people today, and those are Hall of Famers.”

This distinction between starting and relieving can be a point of pride for pitchers. Fulmer would certainly like to start, as he feels he has the stamina. Back when he was a reliever, Fulmer would come into the game in the seventh and eighth inning and leave the game feeling like he had more left in the tank.

Pride aside, the value to a major league team is even more important. Good relievers will pitch 60 innings a season, and good starters will pitch 200 innings a season. That extra value shows in pitcher salaries: In 2015, 11 starters eclipsed a $20 million salary, but only one reliever surpassed the $10 million mark.

Still, in a volatile draft in which teams are generally happy when more than one draftee out of more than 40 rounds reaches the major leagues, the most important thing for a players is that they succeed, period.

“It gets to a point where that doesn’t matter,” a major league executive said. “He’s had so much success, and regardless of what role he ends up having, the important thing is that he ends up being a good pitcher – not that he’s a good pitcher necessarily in the rotation or out of the bullpen.”

The future

Although the draft may have a larger long-term impact on Fulmer than the rest of his college season, it remains on the backburner for the junior from Lakeland, Florida.

With a Super Regional against national seed Illinois beginning Saturday and a second consecutive College World Series berth on the line, the immediacy of the draft hasn’t fully sunk in yet.

Fulmer doesn’t pay attention to what the experts are saying about his draft stock, about his potential, about his future. All of his focus now is on continuing his dominance of the college game and winning.

“Every time I go out, regardless of what I’m doing to help a team, I’m just going out there and competing,” Fulmer said. “Opinions and stuff like that are out of my control, just coming to the field ready to accomplish something every day and helping my team is the biggest thing.”

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