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Michael Fulmer's changeup will be his 'X factor' to being a dominant Tigers starter

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Fulmer has the potential to become a core part of the Tigers rotation.

Duane Burleson/Getty Images

DETROIT -- Michael Fulmer is still developing, but Saturday's performance was an indication of what the Detroit Tigers have in him for the foreseeable future. Not only did he shut down the Tampa Bay Rays with ease, he displayed an ability to wiggle out of trouble without so much as a flinch. And if he's to remain in Detroit, a work-in-progress changeup is the key to his success.

"It's going to be enormous for him," manager Brad Ausmus said after the game. "As a starter, if he's going to be a starting pitcher longterm, I think the changeup or some other pitch like it is going to be very important for him against left-handed hitters."

Fulmer has, until recently, primarily been a two-pitch starter. He had made it in the minors off his flaming fastball and a slider with life, but he'd lacked a third pitch that could give him an edge. Lately, he's been working with pitching coach Rich Dubee to develop a changeup, essential to becoming a pitcher that could stay at the MLB level. One that worked not only against lefties, but right-handed hitters, as well.

In his last four MLB starts -- and in the minors -- Fulmer had used his changeup occasionally to throw off a hitter, change the eye-level, or experiment with it in a game. It worked out to be about a 6.5 percent usage, according to Brooks Baseball. He hadn't yet used it with the confidence of an out-pitch. Saturday's start was different.

Of the 106 pitches thrown by Fulmer, 29 were the changeup, or 27 percent. His slider went by the wayside, thrown just 18 times, or about 17 percent of the time. Eleven of those 29 pitches were thrown in the seventh inning alone. Six of those 11 went to Corey Dickerson during a 10-pitch at-bat for the first out of the inning. Four of his 11 strikeouts came on the changeup.

"Changeup was more (of) a strikeout pitch today," Fulmer said. "Changeup was just working. Threw more changeups than sliders today, I guarantee it. All the hard work is paying off and (James McCann) did a great job calling it. We were on the same page all game. And when we weren't he came to the mound and he told me his reasoning behind what pitch to throw at that time. I trust him with everything I got and everything worked out in the end."

Fulmer had an effective changeup and he wasn't afraid to use it. His high fastball buzzed hitters at velocities up to 98 mph and the slider literally had them off-balance at times. But it was his changeup that gave him the edge. So, when Ausmus came running out of the dugout in the seventh following the popout of Dickerson to start the seventh, it was curious because no call was made to the bullpen.

The reason: Fulmer had been tipping his pitches because he was starting to rush the game. The visit was nothing more than for Ausmus to tell Fulmer to calm down and think before delivering a pitch. The result was two outs on five and four pitches, respectively, the former on a looking strikeout.

It wasn't that Fulmer had no confidence in his changeup before, but it was on another level on Saturday. It was the best the Tigers had seen from their righty, Ausmus remarked, but the scores of zeros on the scoreboard told you that. Still, the possibilities with Fulmer continue to go up. McCann called the changeup the "X factor." He's only a rookie and the changeup is still only in the early stages of development, but already he's seeing deadly results.

"I had confidence in it today," Fulmer said. "Today I just really didn't care about results. I trusted it and I threw it at the bottom of the zone and I got swings and misses, got weak contact with it, and that's what I want."