Niyo: Tigers’ Tarik Skubal still a work in progress — and that’s a good thing

Detroit News

John Niyo
| The Detroit News

It didn’t come easily, or all that comfortably at first. But eventually, Tarik Skubal got a grip, and then he was able to quickly grasp what it would take to make it last.

And as the Tigers’ young pitcher drove away from the Driveline Baseball facility in suburban Seattle late last week, the feeling was not unlike the one he had last September, after the 24-year-old had “dipped my toes in the water,” as he put it, and officially become a major-league ballplayer.

He learned. He grew. And, mostly, Skubal discovered, “it was just about getting confident and comfortable.”

Same goes with the off-speed pitch he was busy trying to fix last week, paying another visit to the Driveline training facility that has become a beehive of baseball activity in recent years, as players cross-pollinate their natural talent with analytics in a biomechanics lab.

Using high-speed cameras, motion-capture sensors and instant data feedback, pitchers and hitters alike can fine-tune every aspect of their game in real-time. And for Skubal, one of the top pitching prospects in the game, the goal last week was to redesign a change-up that had “just kind of turned into a batting practice fastball” last season, routinely served up at 83 mph without much movement.

Spinners deal

It didn’t take long to see why once Skubal saw the Rapsodo numbers, either. The change-up had too much backspin, killing any vertical break that would separate it from his four-seam fastball up in the zone. But it took two days of bullpen work — “I went through about every grip you could think of for a change-up,” Skubal said — before he finally found a solution that he hopes can be an effective pitch to keep hitters off-balance.

More: Wasted year of development? Tigers prospect Matt Manning begs to differ

“Once I figured it out, it was, ‘Yes, this is what I came up here to do,’” said Skubal, who spent much of the week hanging out with teammates Daniel Norris and Spencer Turnbull at Matthew Boyd’s home on Mercer Island in Seattle. “So now it’s just about consistently doing that in my bullpens going forward.”

And it’s about building off what he learned last season, even as the pandemic robbed Skubal and the Tigers’ other prized pitching prospects — namely Casey Mize and Matt Manning — of a full year of normal growth in the minors. Instead, after two abbreviated spring training stints and some taxi-squad time spent in Toledo, Skubal joined Mize in a monthlong major-league cameo late last summer.

Skubal, who’d only made nine starts above A-ball before last season, finished with a 1-4 record and a 5.63 ERA over 32 innings in eight appearances for the Tigers, including seven starts. The hard-hit rate was a bit of a wake-up call, particularly facing right-handed hitters. But some of the underlying numbers looked more promising — opponents hit just .203 against his fastball with plenty of whiffs — and over Skubal’s last three outings, he recorded 20 strikeouts and just three walks in 14⅔ innings.

“I was just focusing on growing and getting better from each start, just kind of learning and take the punches and roll with it,” Skubal said. “Learning about how to get guys out and how my stuff plays and then just getting confident and comfortable at that level, competing against the best players in the world.

“So I think that’s kind of what was going on down the stretch. I was just getting more and more confident in myself, and I feel like you could see it on the field. I feel like I watched it when I was pitching. Just kind of knowing that you belong, that’s important as well.”

But so is what happens next, obviously. Just ask the Tigers’ new manager.

“If we’re gonna do this right,” AJ Hinch said this week, echoing something he has said plenty over the last few months, “we’ve gotta get the pitching right.”

And that starts with his rotation setting a tone, both for the team and, quite frankly, for this rebuild. The Tigers are hoping for a bounce-back season from Boyd in 2021, while counting on Spencer Turnbull to build off last year’s breakout performance. Ditto Daniel Norris, whether it’s in the rotation or out of the bullpen in a role similar to the one he seemed to thrive in last summer.

But any eventual playoff-contending hopes for the Tigers rest on some of the younger arms like Skubal, Mize and Manning. All three rank in Baseball America’s top 30 prospects, and after Skubal and Mize made their MLB debuts last summer, Manning’s probably not too far behind.

Numbers crunch

“And not to put all the pressure on Chris Fetter, but that’s why he was brought here,” Hinch added, referencing the Tigers’ new pitching coach. “I’ve never seen a team have success at this level — and certainly sustained success — without a good pitching staff.”

Fetter’s more data-driven approach will be a change of pace from the Tigers’ past, and one of the keys to any future success here, obviously. And the early feedback from his staff is all positive, based on their initial conversations over the phone or via text messages and emails. Skubal talked Thursday about the detailed spring training plans they’ve already received from the 35-year-old Fetter, who spent time in the Padres and Dodgers organizations before taking over as the pitching coach at the University of Michigan, where he helped the Wolverines to the College World Series final in 2019.  

“I think when you have someone like Chris that understands the numbers, understands how to take the data from whatever it is and then make it digestible for each person … what it does is it speeds up the learning curve,” said Boyd, who at 29 is both the elder statesman of the Tigers’ rotation and the most analytically-inclined of the group. “It gives numbers and values to things that maybe you only had a feel for, or you thought you saw.

“So when you have someone like Chris that can really understand it and digest it and break it down for each person and meet them as they are, I think it’s gonna be extremely beneficial, especially for those young guys.”

Count Skubal among that group, certainly.

“I’ve heard all really good things and all really positive things about him,” he said. “Very smart, knowledgeable guy. Very personal — it’s not a one-size-fits-all (approach.) So I’m very excited to dive in and kind of learn as much as I can about my stuff and how it plays. I think he does a great job of doing that.”

Whatever he does, Skubal knows it’ll take a lot more work on his part. He and Mize both will be vying for spots in the rotation this spring, but nothing’s guaranteed. Other than the likelihood that everyone will be called on at some point, particularly given the likely innings restrictions in play for the young guns. 

Skubal says he sees all the lists touting his potential, and admits, “it feels good.”

“But it doesn’t really matter too much if I’m being honest,” he said. “It doesn’t really matter if you’re not going out there and getting results on the field.

So that’s why he was busy in the lab last week, getting a head start on things.  

“Now I need to push myself even harder,” Skubal said, “and not get complacent.”

Twitter: @JohnNiyo

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