Four Detroit Tigers pitchers met up in Seattle this offseason. Here’s what they worked on

Detroit Free Press

Evan Petzold
 
| Detroit Free Press

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Detroit Tigers pitcher Daniel Norris is rocking his pre-spring training beard. It’s long enough to put in a ponytail. But that’s not his style. Some people — actually, just Matthew Boyd‘s children — jokingly mistake him for Santa Claus.

“He’s Uncle Daniel to my kids,” Boyd said last week. “They love him.”

Yet Norris — unlike Santa — is in shape. Pitchers and catchers report Feb. 17 to Lakeland, Florida, for spring training, and he couldn’t be more ecstatic about his cross-country journey from Santa Barbra, California, where he has spent the offseason catching waves on a surfboard. But Norris made sure to squeeze in a voyage to Seattle. That’s where he visited Boyd, a close friend and teammate.

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The left-handers, who often get coffee together on road trips, had plenty to discuss: new manager AJ Hinch, pitching coach Chris Fetter‘s love for analytics, the team’s 2021 outlook and how they can find success across a 162-game season.

Also, Boyd and Norris — accompanied by lefty Tarik Skubal — trained together at Driveline Baseball in Kent, about 20 miles away from Seattle. Right-hander Spencer Turnbull showed up, as well, for muscle activation techniques at the Athletic Training Institute in Bellevue, only 10 miles from Seattle.

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Driveline is self-described as the world’s premier data-driven baseball player development organization. The essence of ATI’s muscle activation techniques is to detect and treat muscles that aren’t functioning properly.

Those places are where the magic happens.

“It was pretty sweet to be around each other and work with each other,” Boyd said. “And continue to get that ball rolling, as you get to build off each other. There’s so much I can learn from Daniel, Skubal and Turnbull. Just makes all of us better.”

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Just like old times

Entering their ninth season together, Boyd and Norris became buddies as members of the Toronto Blue Jays and were sent to the Tigers in the 2015 David Price trade. Their relationship began with the Single-A Lansing Lugnuts in 2013. Recently drafted, Boyd needed a place to stay.

“Hey, you can live with us if you want,” Norris then said.

Norris showed Boyd his room. He surveyed the number of rooms compared to the number of teammates living in the home. It didn’t add up. Confused, Boyd asked where Norris stayed.

“I’m in the attic,” said Norris, who slept in a hammock that season.

They’ve been bros ever since but aren’t anything alike. Norris remains a free spirit, surfing his free time and listening to Jack Johnson, who doesn’t seem to follow any particular genre of music. Meanwhile, Boyd has two children with his wife, Ashley. They started Kingdom Home in Uganda; the mission is to end child sex slavery.

But Boyd and Norris are “always dreaming” of what’s next. Boyd seeks to bounce-back in 2021 — he posted a 6.71 ERA in 60⅓ innings last year — and Norris, still uncertain of his role, becomes a free agent next winter.

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In Seattle, they cooked together and stayed up late, where Norris forced Boyd to watch surf films. Then, they checked out highlights of New York Mets two-time Cy Young winner Jacob deGrom.

“The next day, (Boyd) was working on something he saw on that,” Norris said last week. “It’s always fun to hang out. We’re always picking each other’s brains and trying to make each other better. It was a really good visit.”

Tweaking pitches

Skubal made the trip from Arizona to Seattle from Jan. 18-24. He was with Boyd and Norris the entire time and bumped into Turnbull toward the end of his stay. On Monday, Tuesday and Friday of that week, he tinkered with his mechanics at Driveline.

The 24-year-old aims to build on his eight-game debut season in 2020. He finished with a 5.63 ERA, 37 strikeouts and 11 walks across 32 innings. This spring, he will compete for a full-time spot in the rotation.

Skubal’s experience at Driveline, where he focused primarily on his change-up, went something like this: Throw a change-up. Check the numbers. Make an adjustment. Repeat the process.

It took him 35 minutes to get through a 30-pitch bullpen.

“It actually took all of Tuesday’s pitch design session,” Skubal said Thursday, “so that was 30-ish pitches, and then about 15-20 more (pitches) on Friday to really understand what I’m doing and make sure the grip is fine. I went through about every grip you could think of for a change-up.”

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Opponents had a .258 expected batting average against his change-up last season. The problem, Skubal explained, was he kept putting too much backspin on the ball. It wasn’t getting the necessary vertical break.

Without the “dive and fade” he wanted, Skubal’s change-up morphed into a batting practice fastball. Despite his initial frustration at Driveline, he evolved the pitch into what he calls a split-change-up.

“When I worked on my curveball two offseasons ago, it was pretty simple,” Skubal said. “The cues worked right away. In a matter of three pitches, I kind of figured it out. But the change-up was more difficult for me.”

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Once Skubal discovered his new change-up grip, he took notes. His report was detailed, even describing the amount of pressure on his pointer finger and thumb. 

“I’m very confident with it going forward,” Skubal said. “I’m really excited about what it’s going to be in a month from now or two months from now.”

Faith, emotions and beer

Before Skubal departed, Turnbull rolled into town. He is at an awkward point in his career: not quite a major league veteran like Boyd and Norris, but not a rookie like Skubal, either.

Turnbull, 28, has three years — two full seasons — of MLB experience. He was the Tigers’ best arm in 2020, pitching to the tune of a 3.97 ERA with 51 strikeouts and 29 walks in 56⅔ innings.

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“For Skub, he’ll still be a rookie,” Turnbull said Wednesday. “He got his feet wet last year kind of like I did in 2018. He’s got his first full year coming up. It can only help (him), being around us. It helps me being around older guys and younger guys.

“You get a little bit of a mentor on one side, and I get to speak into somebody who’s a little younger. It’s just a cool dynamic to be a part of.”

There wasn’t much he wanted to tweak with his mechanics, so he didn’t go to Driveline. Instead, Turnbull focused on the physical and mental capabilities of his muscles. Yet his biggest takeaway from the trip was the camaraderie between his teammates.

After working out, they searched countless YouTube videos to evaluate the mechanics of MLB’s best pitchers. Turnbull offered an example of one of the comments: “Oh, dude, if you get your foot down a little earlier, you might add a little something here, get a little more spin on the ball.”

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Eventually, they closed the computer in favor of pizza and a couple of beers.

“(Then) it’s catching up on life,” Turnbull said. “How’s your girlfriend? How’s your wife? You dating anybody? What’s going on? How’s Nashville? How’s Seattle? Daniel, how’s surfing?”

Still, the personal growth Turnbull found most valuable from his visit to Seattle stemmed from much deeper questions: “How’s your faith? How’s your spirit? How’s your soul? How’s your emotional health?”

“It’s really beneficial for me,” Turnbull said. “Just being able to catch up with my friends and teammates, check up on everybody, see how everybody is doing, know that they’re doing well. Getting excited about the season.

“It’s just a cool dynamic to be a part of.”

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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