Detroit Tigers’ Tarik Skubal out for rotation spot, armed with more confidence, better stuff

Detroit Free Press

Evan Petzold
 
| Detroit Free Press

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Detroit Tigers left-hander Tarik Skubal got his taste.

Now he wants more.

The 24-year-old is gearing up to contend for a spot in the starting rotation during spring training, which starts Feb. 17 for pitchers and catchers. He made his major league debut last year, making eight appearances. His composure on the mound was noble, as was his scorching fastball up in the strike zone, but that was just a test run.

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“That’s motivation,” Skubal said Thursday. “These guys are extremely talented and very gifted players. I need to push myself even harder and especially not get complacent. As far as the mentality, I’m going to attack spring training the same way I always have, and that’s just to go out there and build innings up and making sure you’re healthy from the ground up.”

The real fun is only beginning. Last year, Skubal entered spring training knowing just four players, all fellow prospects: right-handers Casey Mize, Matt Manning and Alex Faedo and lefty Joey Wentz. This time, he knows everyone on the roster, from veteran Miguel Cabrera to 21-year-old Isaac Paredes.

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As for that rotation spot, he isn’t taking on too much pressure.

“Being able to play with a lot of those guys, I’ll be more comfortable,” Skubal said. “I try not to focus on winning a rotation spot. I’m just trying to go out and control what I can control and let everything take care of itself.”

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His chances seem favorable, considering he posted a 3.72 ERA with 14 strikeouts and two walks across 9⅔ in his final three games. Overall, he ended his debut season with a 5.63 ERA, 1.219 WHIP, 37 strikeouts and 11 walks in 32 innings.

“That’s what was going on down the stretch,” Skubal said. “I was more confident in myself. And I feel like you could see it on the field. I watched it when I was, you know, pitching. Knowing you belong, that’s important.”

Skubal’s 27.6% strikeout rate and 8.2% walk rate — both better than league averages — are indicators of future success. He went to his four-seam fastball a whopping 348 times, followed by his changeup (97 pitches), slider (93) and curveball (46). The slider limited the most damage, only giving up a .185 batting average and one homer.

[ Why Tigers rookie Tarik Skubal was ahead of the curve in 2020 ]

His fastball produced 21 strikeouts and a 28.4% swing-and-miss rate but issued six home runs. Still, the fastball — averaging 94.4 mph — kept opponents to a .250 batting average (and a .203 expected batting average).

“Looking back, I’m like, ‘Hey, I’m not getting beat on my pitch that I’m throwing 60% of the time. I’m not getting beat too bad on it,'” Skubal said. “A couple of unfortunate events where they run it out of the yard. Taking that into next season, if I can develop a couple more pitches around that, that’s what I want to be.”

Skubal spent last week at Driveline Baseball, located in the Seattle area, to change the grip of his changeup. He is trying to perfect the art of pitch tunneling. That’s making two different pitches — fastball and changeup, in this case — appear identical for as long as possible after coming out of his hand.

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Batters had a 47.4% hard-hit rate against his changeup, putting him fifth-worst among pitchers with more than 25 innings. (Derek Holland, whom the Tigers signed this winter to a minor-league deal, was the worst, allowing a 55.6% hard-hit rate.)

“Everything feels good throwing bullpens, everything feels like it’s coming out the way it should be,” Skubal said. “I’m focused a little more on off-speed, but it doesn’t take away from the focus behind my fastball command. That’s where everything starts from. I am focusing on off-speed stuff, in terms of (my) changeup and getting a little bit more confident in that curveball.”

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Once spring training begins, Skubal will compete with Mize, Manning, Spencer Turnbull, Matthew Boyd, Jose Urena, Michael Fulmer, Daniel Norris and Tyler Alexander, among others, for a spot in the starting rotation.

New manager AJ Hinch preaches that starting pitching sets the tone for winning. Making sure the Tigers’ rotation is in tip-top condition entering the season is his priority this spring, and Skubal is more than ready to play his part.

“You got to believe and buy into being the best pitching staff rolling into every park, every stadium no matter what team we’re playing,” Skubal said. “Just being that confident in each other and understanding everyone goes through highs and lows, but at the end of the day, we all support each other and got each other’s back.

“We all want to win. That’s the most important thing: winning. For me, personally, it is. Buying into that philosophy, that’s going to be huge.”

Evan Petzold is a sports reporter at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.

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