Making sense of Tarik Skubal’s rocky debut with Detroit Tigers

Detroit Free Press

Detroit Tigers pitching coach Rick Anderson put his arm around Tarik Skubal in the dugout Tuesday night after the 23-year-old rookie struggled in his major league debut.

It looked like a father talking to a son who fell off his bike and skinned his knee.

Anderson’s body language was easy to read: It was a rough start, not the debut you wanted, but it’s over. You can breathe again and relax. You made some mistakes but you can learn from this. You threw some good pitches and that’s what you have to remember. Learn from the bad ones, remember the good ones. Oh, and you are pitching again in five days. Welcome to the big leagues, kid.

At least, that’s what it looked like.

“I trust this kid — he’s got a great arm,” Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire said, after the White Sox rolled to a 10-4 victory, which was the Tigers’ seventh straight loss. “You see some of the pitches he was making were really, really dominating and then, you know, they got after him pretty good, so they didn’t kill him by any means, but they got after him.”

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Skubal, one of the Tigers’ top prospects, lasted just two innings, giving up four runs off seven hits.

In many ways, Chicago’s offensive explosion wasn’t surprising. Skubal was facing a lineup loaded with eight right-handed hitters, and Chicago came into the game with a .252 batting average, eighth best in MLB. 

Toss in a hyped up, overthrowing rookie and it had trouble written all over it.

“He was really throwing it,” Gardenhire said of Skubal. “I think he was probably overthrowing just about everything. And, you know, we just didn’t know which way it was going to go. And those guys, they’re hot. They’re swinging really good. It was great experience for him.”

More than anything, there is one huge lesson that Skubal needs to learn. Never, ever throw Tim Anderson anything he can hit, especially in the first inning.

Because Anderson, Chicago’s leadoff hitter, promptly hit a home run 442 feet off Skubal’s third pitch of his career, a 93 mph fastball.

It was Anderson’s third leadoff homer against the Tigers this season.

Quick note to all Tigers pitchers: Just stop pitching to him.

“Well, if we knew how to approach him, he wouldn’t be getting all these hits,” Gardenhire said. “We haven’t come up with that answer yet.”

Skubal was pulled after throwing 52 pitches, 33 of them strikes. He was on a limited pitch count because he had COVID-19 earlier this summer and is still building up his arm strength.

His fastball topped out at 97 mph.

“You learn from it,” said Skubal, “You learn a lot about yourself and you know how you’re competing and how the adrenaline flows a little bit differently.”

For subscribers:: The story behind Tarik Skubal’s climb to Detroit

But for all the bad — and the final line looked awful — there were several encouraging moments.

In the first inning, Skubal faced Eloy Jiménez, a right-handed left fielder, who came into the game leading the White Sox with seven home runs and 17 RBIs. After blowing a 96 mph fastball by Jimenez, Skubal took a deep breath and wiped his face on his shoulder. Then, he got him to hit into a double play.

“Andy came out and had a little meeting,” Skubal said. “He said, ‘get a ground ball to give yourself a double play.’ I was like, ‘Yeah,’ that was the goal that at-bat.’ ”

With guys on first and third and one out, Skubal faced James McCann, the former Tigers catcher. Skubal was fighting his way through the lineup, trying to regain his command, unable to hit the target. But he blew a fastball by McCann, who threw his bat at the ball and wasn’t close. The bat ended up in the seats.

On his 30th pitch of the first inning, Skubal threw a 96 mph fastball to McCann, who hit a long fly ball to center field, which JaCoby Jones caught on the warning track.

Skubal walked off the mound and let out a deep breath.

That’s something Skubal can learn from. That moment when everything looked like it was swirling out of control, but he didn’t freak out.

“He could have let that really spiral,” Tigers catcher Austin Romine said. “And he didn’t. I think that speaks volumes to where his mental state is and how he approaches the game.”

To start the second inning, Skubal faced Luis Robert, a center fielder.  Robert leads the White Sox with a .286 average and an .341 on-base percentage. But Skubal got him to fly out harmlessly to right field.

Another positive.

More than anything, Skubal is known for his fastball. In the minor leagues, he pitched 145 innings and recorded 212 strikeouts. But he can’t blow it by big leaguers. And he seemed to learn that as he went.

Skubal showed something different against Jimenez in the second inning. He struck him out with a slider, completing a pitching sequence that did not include a fastball.

That showed a small moment of learning.

And that’s how he ended the night.

“He was tired,” Gardenhire said. “I could tell he was really sweating. And you had to work really hard through those first couple innings. So that’s a starting point, we go from there.

[Why is Tigers prospect Tarik Skubal so dang competitive? Only a father knows ]

Despite the rough start, this is still a momentous week for the Tigers and their rebuild.

The Tigers’ social media team sent out a tweet about Skubal that read: “Welcome to the show.” And it was popping with lights like he was in the middle of a fireworks display.

Yes, this was a big deal, even if he struggled.

Because it was a night when the future seemed to arrive in the present.

Isaac Paredes, another rookie, was playing third base – for the second straight game.

And Casey Mize, the Tigers’ top pitching prospect, is expected to start tonight.

That’s significant for this rebuild.

In many ways, this is a bonus year for the Tigers, a chance just to give these young players experience.

And it’s important to remember, this was the start, not the defining moment. Skubal has too much talent, and too strong of a makeup, for this loss to linger.

There is only one thing that matters this season, for both Skubal and Mize. It’s not how many games they win. It’s not how many strikeouts they get. It’s how much they develop and grow from the struggles that are inevitable for every rookie pitcher.

Contact Jeff Seidel: Follow him on Twitter @seideljeff. To read his recent columns, go to

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