Jim Fuller could see the summit. After seven seasons in the minor leagues with three different organizations, the Major Leagues were in sight. The left-handed pitcher joined the Pittsburgh Pirates in the offseason and was flat out dominant after receiving an invitation to Major League spring training. In 10 games, he allowed just one run over nine and two-thirds innings, walking none while striking out eight. It appeared as though his big league dream was finally going to be achieved. But then, in the blink of an eye, everything changed.
“Last year was, by far, one of the tougher years I had to go through,” Fuller recalled via telephone this week. “I got hurt right at the end of spring training. Numbers were great in spring, and everything was feeling real good. All of a sudden, injuries happened and kind of set me back. It was real frustrating just sitting there watching the games and not being able to play.”
Fuller suffered a forearm muscle strain that would keep him out of action until the end of May. After recovering from the injury, he appeared in three games for the Triple-A Indianapolis Indians and allowed two runs in three and one-third innings. Despite overcoming the initial injury, it had residual effects on his left shoulder which had been surgically repaired in 2011 after tearing his labrum. Fuller’s season was over in a flash, and that reality was difficult for him to bear.
“It’s one of the toughest things you have to do in sports,” he stated in reference to sitting out the remainder of the year. “You know you can go out there and compete at a high level, but you physically can’t because you’re injured. It’s really tough mentally. I have good family that love me, support me and give me good words of encouragement. It’s just going out there and knowing that everything is going to eventually be okay, and you just have to fight through this.”
The 29-year-old made the decision this winter to ensure that all would indeed be just fine. The positive support he received during the year, coupled with his strong performance last spring, gave him the confidence to get back up on the proverbial horse and begin his quest back towards the big leagues. Most importantly, Fuller dedicated his time to figuring out what might have been the reason for these injuries and how he could correct the problem.
“I took some time this offseason and really thought about what could possibly be causing me to have the same arm issue year after year,” he noted. “I looked at some video of myself and kind of narrowed it down to these little things that I was doing which were putting a lot of pressure on my shoulder. I really took some time and did a lot of things to help out my mechanics and take a lot of that pressure off.”
The results thus far seem to be exactly what he was hoping for. Although he has yet to pitch in a game, the Massachusetts native is feeling strong, both physically and mentally, and believes he has found his groove once again.
“I’m in a good spot right now,” Fuller said, his voice teeming with excitement. “The ball’s coming out great, and my velocity is really good. It’s probably among the best it has been in my career.”
2017 will present a new experience for the former New York Mets draft pick. After spending eight seasons in Major League organizations, Fuller will get his first taste of the Atlantic League. Even though he does not have a vast knowledge about the league as a whole, the reviews he has been presented with have made him eager to run head-on at this new opportunity.
“My agent had a couple of guys who played on the team last year,” Fuller noted. “He said it’s a really good place to play and that I’ll have a fun time. I know it’s good competition, and I’ve heard everyone who has played [in the league] has said it’s a blast to play there. Honestly, I love playing the game and competing and that’s probably the thing I’m looking forward to the most.”
Fuller has done a little bit of everything in his career. He spent most the first three seasons of his career in the starting rotation and did incredibly well, compiling a 16-11 record and a 2.29 ERA in that span. After missing the entire 2011 season and most of 2012 with his shoulder injury, the Mets organization moved him to the bullpen. Despite the switch, Fuller found success in a relief role too. He posted a 0.84 ERA in 2013 at Advanced-A St. Lucie, went 3-1 with a 2.84 ERA in 2014 with Double-A New Britain in the Twins organization and was 2-1 with a 2.78 ERA while at Nashville (AAA, Athletics) in 2015. The lefty has enjoyed both roles, and though the Ducks view him as a reliever, his versatility could be an asset.
“As a starter, I really liked going out there every five days and getting the ball to throw five or more innings,” Fuller stated. “I like to compete, and I like to have the ball as much as I can. I’ve really enjoyed relieving as well. It’s a little different than as a starter, but I like getting the ball and having a chance to pitch every day. I enjoy that mindset of going out there and just letting it go for an inning.”
With spring training underway among Major League organizations and the Atlantic League season approaching on the horizon, it is nearly time for Fuller to take the mound again. With the frustration of 2016 well in his rearview mirror, it will be important for him to make sure that those negative thoughts and memories remain in the past. One of the key factors in helping him do that will be the relationship he forges with new Ducks pitching coach Billy Horn. After focusing all offseason on altering his mechanics to avoid injury, Fuller will look to Horn to make sure that he is doing all the right things.
“I think it’s important to have a good relationship with your pitching coach,” he opined. “They see things that you can’t see yourself. Any kind of advice you can take from the pitching coach you have, every little thing helps. If he sees something I can’t pinpoint that I’m doing, we’ll work together to try and figure things out.”
In addition to developing that bond, Fuller knows that the onus will be on him to keep his good vibes in place. He took it upon himself to overcome the injuries, figure out the problem and correct it this winter. Now, his mental toughness and focus during the year will be the key in maintaining both health and success. When asked about what it will take to avoid thinking about his past, Fuller was confident in his reply.
“I’m just going to think about what I did this offseason. I put in a lot of hard work, looked at a lot of video and did a lot of work off the mound. I’ve done just about everything. I’ve figured things out, and I think I’m in a good place right now. I’m going to take that into this season and not think about the past couple of seasons.”
With a mindset like that, Fuller just might be able to soar back up the mountain and land at the top.