Detroit Tigers rebuild relies on how well Rick Anderson coaches their top prospects

Detroit Free Press

Tarik Skubal couldn’t get his emotions in check.

He told himself to be calm, yet he wasn’t as aggressive as he needed to be.

His MLB debut on Aug. 18 didn’t go as planned. Not because his stuff wasn’t there — his fastball, at times, showed why the Detroit Tigers have so much riding on his success — but because he needed guidance to ease the pressure.

Pitching coach Rick Anderson found him in the dugout between innings. Then, once manager Ron Gardenhire had pulled Skubal, he sought him out again. This time, Anderson extended his left arm, peacefully wrapping it around Skubal’s left shoulder.

They spoke on the bench for an entire inning. Just the two of them. No interruptions.

“Hey, we got that first one out of the way,” Anderson told Skubal that Tuesday night in Chicago, offering his advice on specific scenarios throughout his 52-pitch, four-run outing. “Now let’s take off running.”

This is a new situation for Anderson with the Tigers, with a fan base begging for fixes after losing 114 games in 2019. In large part, that will depend on Anderson’s guidance of Skubal and right-hander Casey Mize. If he can mold them, then he can surely do the same with incoming right-handers Matt Manning and Alex Faedo, building a dominant rotation for years.

But if Anderson, who is currently away from the team with a family matter, can’t? Someone else will likely get the chance before the organization feels it’s too late.

[ Making sense of Tarik Skubal’s rocky debut ]

“He’s a calming influence, but he’s not afraid to jump their butt on some of the things they do on the mound,” said Gardenhire, who has known Anderson since the two were minor-league roommates in the New York Mets system. “I think our pitchers appreciate that, but he knows his business, he knows his stuff. He’s helped a lot of really good pitchers develop in our past career, so I have total trust in him.”

In addition to coming up through the minors together, Anderson and Gardenhire worked together as coaches in the Twins organization for two decades — including the 2002-14 span when Gardenhire was Twins manager and Anderson was his pitching coach.

One day after Skubal’s debut, Anderson did it all over again with Mize, the team’s No. 2 prospect. He went 4⅓ innings and allowed three runs but became the first Tiger to punch out at least seven without a walk in his first outing in the majors and showcased his nasty split-finger fastball. It’s a pitch Anderson typically won’t recommend, but he’s not going to force Mize away from his go-to offering.

“I remember over in Minnesota, that (the splitter) was a big no-no,” Anderson said. “We’ve usually done that (with pitchers) when you’re running out of chances with what we’re doing, maybe add another pitch. It’s not something we really want to teach in an organization, but it’s something he had coming in. And it’s been successful.”

Skubal improved in his second outing, going 2⅓ innings with only one run allowed and five strikeouts on Aug. 23. But Mize took a step back by issuing four runs (three earned) in 3⅓ innings, with just two strikeouts, on Aug. 24.

For subscribers: Mize’s rough day shouldn’t worry you. This Tigers great struggled early, too

Their inconsistencies shouldn’t be surprising. Sure, Mize and Skubal are forecasted to become mainstays in the rotation, but the process will have its share of trial and error. Anderson will get the chance to work through those kinks, and eventually consistent results should follow.

“(He’s) certainly more than capable of finishing guys off and helping them,” Tigers minor-league pitching coordinator A.J. Sager told the Free Press on Wednesday. “Helping them adapt to what major-league pitching is.

“You can’t replicate that atmosphere, the talent that’s up there. So you do everything you can down here with the tools you have, and then you send them up to Detroit when you feel they’re ready.”

‘Rick’s never wavered’

When Anderson received a promotion from bullpen coach to pitching coach in June 2018, his focus shifted to left-hander Matthew Boyd and righties Spencer Turnbull and Michael Fulmer.

“He knows how to give just enough when you’re ready for it, but he doesn’t overload you too quickly,” said Turnbull, who continues to make strides with a 2.97 ERA this season. “He doesn’t try to force anything on you too fast, so I think the young guys will have time to develop. He handled me that way, and I feel like it’s been a huge help.”

Anderson gained Sager’s respect at their first meeting in Lakeland, Florida, before the 2018 season. What stood out was his aptitude to build relationships and his understanding of how each minor-leaguer learned best.

For subscribers: The ‘bulldog mentality’ that links Casey Mize with Justin Verlander

Because the COVID-19 pandemic nixed the minor-league season, Sager has been tasked with finding new ways to prepare prospects. He is operating out of Fifth Third Field, the alternate training site in Toledo, where all they get are intrasquad games.

But the goal in Detroit and Toledo hasn’t changed.

“Rick absolutely stayed right on that line the whole time,” Sager said. “Very good communicator, very interested in what we’re doing down here. We’re aligned very well as far as what they feel they need to have out of guys that come up from the minor-league system, and the plan that we put in place. It really begins with open communication, and Rick’s never wavered from that.”

‘I trust him a lot’

Nearly a month after the season started, general manager Al Avila decided it was time for Mize and Skubal to make their MLB debuts. The responsibility for them was transferred from Sager to Anderson.

“The big thing is they both have a lot of talent,” Sager said. “You need that to compete and have success at the major-league level. We can’t sugarcoat that. You need to have a lot of talent, and both of them do.”

[ If Tigers become winners, we’ll remember the day Mize was called up ]

But Anderson’s job is more than just handling Mize and Skubal. He also has veterans to help, including Fulmer, who is trying to revive his once-promising career, and Boyd, who is still searching for the form that made him the Tigers’ ace early last season. 

Fulmer returned this season after missing all of last season following a knee surgery in 2018 and Tommy John surgery in 2019, but he is on a pitch limit and has struggled to find his groove. Each problem gets relayed back to Anderson, and he tries to find ways to fix them — sometimes to no avail.

“I trust him a lot. He’s got some stuff that we’re working on,” Fulmer said. “Just still a tick off somewhere, but he’ll tell you my bullpens in between starts have been great. I’ve been feeling confident, feeling good coming out of them. … Like I said, just a tick off, but he’s been awesome to work with, and he knows what he’s talking about.”

Meanwhile, Boyd has fallen apart. He opened 2019 with a 3.87 ERA in the first half but has posted a 6.31 ERA since then, including an 8.48 ERA through six starts in 2020. He says he got lost chasing analytical improvements and credits Anderson for his patience, which he thinks will help Mize and Skubal, as will Anderson’s wisdom, coaching pedigree and ability to manage personalities.

For subscribers: Jim Leyland, Justin Verlander and a blueprint for Tigers calling up Casey Mize

“There’s a reason why you see so many of the pitchers in the dugout sitting next to him and just picking his brain as the game’s going on,” Boyd said. “He goes, ‘OK, what would you throw in this situation?’ Or you sit there and he says, ‘Oh, look, he’s missing here. Let’s see if he makes the adjustment.’ Just those little things and you get that inexpensive experience.

“The more he gets around Skubal and Mize, and I know he already does, he understands how to work with them and continue to get them better. And push the right buttons.”

‘The perfect time’

The formula for working with Mize and Skubal is the same.

Both quickly proved their maturity and competitiveness. They judged their outings with honesty, understood what they did well and took notes on what to work on for their next outing. Most importantly, they appear motivated to strive for greatness.

Accordingly, Anderson hasn’t had to sugarcoat his lessons.

“In some cases, you can challenge them more,” Sager said. “Give them the care a little further away than some guys because you understand they’re going to do what they got to do to get there. You don’t have to worry about those two being overwhelmed and getting too much information where they crack.”

For subscribers: The special trait Alan Trammell and Jim Leyland see in Tarik Skubal

Now that Mize and Skubal have made it to the majors and shown glimpses of their long-term capabilities, it’s up to Anderson to help them maximize their potential. And as the rebuild forges on, Anderson doesn’t think there’s a better time to prove he’s the one to see it through.

“It’s time. Let’s see what we got,” Anderson said. “For me, it’s the perfect type of season. There’s no fans there. The big leagues is the big leagues, but it’s just a little different this year.

“It’s the perfect time to get them started.”

Evan Petzold is a sports reporting intern at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold. The Free Press has started a digital subscription model. Here’s how you can gain access to our most exclusive Detroit Tigers content. 

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