Tarik Skubal’s new pitch could be the key to a big season

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Tarik Skubal fully emerged from the shadow of Casey Mize and Matt Manning in 2020. After some early struggles, his major league debut was a success under difficult circumstances and offered a glimpse at his potential to become a very good starting pitcher. Now with some experience under his belt, and a new pitch to hone this spring, Skubal looks to establish himself as a marquee name in a rebuilding Detroit Tigers rotation.

Even under perfect conditions, the leap to the majors is a tough transition. In Skubal’s case, his year, like most, did not go according to plan. COVID-19 kept him out of summer camp, and he only had a few weeks of work in Toledo before making his major league debut while skipping Triple-A entirely in the process. Overall, Skubal simply gave up too many home runs. Despite posting excellent strikeout-to-walk numbers across his seven starts, and even taking a no-hit bid into the fifth inning in one outing, he was hit hard at times. The 5.63 ERA and 5.75 FIP don’t lie, but there is good reason to expect much more success in 2021.

The home run trouble

Skubal struck out 27.2 percent of the hitters he faced in 2020, 4.3 percent above league average for a starting pitcher. Meanwhile his walk rate was a tenth of a percent below average. The problem for him was the home runs. League average was 1.4 home runs per nine innings, while hitters got to Skubal for 2.53 HR/9. In particular, there was a clear vulnerability to right-handed hitters specifically. They hit all nine of the home runs he allowed in 2020.

The changeup is the key to altering that balance of power.

Skubal has a very fastball heavy approach in general. As a prospect, this has remained a concern for evaluators as major league hitters will ultimately catch up to any starter’s fastball if they don’t have to look out for anything else. His monster breakout campaign in 2019 saw him throwing close to 70 percent fastballs at the High-A and Double-A levels. Despite knowing what was coming, hitters couldn’t take advantage. Skubal dusted them with a vengeance anyway. In 42 13 innings for the Double-A Erie SeaWolves, he posted a ludicrous 48.2 percent strikeout rate.

As he proved again in 2020, this is one of the better fastballs of any starter in the game. The metrics back that claim up quite well. Skubal has very high efficiency spin—99 percent—on the pitch and above average movement both horizontally and vertically. However, major league hitters also proved the scouts’ point, as right-handed hitters were still able to tee off on Skubal’s mistakes, despite plenty of whiffs and weak contact as well. Some of that is improving his fastball command, but he really needs a reliable second pitch against right-handed hitters.

Adding a splitter

For Skubal, that meant upgrading his changeup was job one this season. As Cody Stavenhagen of The Athletic Detroit reported back on January 21, Skubal’s last stop before heading to Lakeland for spring camp was another stopover at Driveline Baseball in Seattle, Washington to try and improve his changeup. He spent several days under the Edgertronic high speed cameras and spin trackers, experimenting with grips and trying to find a version that had more depth. He ultimately found what he wanted in a splitter that sounds, at least in theory, a lot like that used by fellow Tigers prospect, Casey Mize.

Suffice it to say that acquiring one of best splitters in the game would be great, if rather unreasonable as an expectation. If things worked out that well, Skubal would have two 70 grade, double-plus pitches and there aren’t that many starters in the game’s history who’ve had more to work with than that. But even just a modestly above average offspeed pitch could take Skubal’s game to new heights.

As noted previously, home runs by right-handed hitters were Skubal’s most glaring weakness in 2020. Six of his nine home runs allowed were fastballs hit for home runs by right-handed hitters, and attacking that weak point makes all the sense in the world this season. The changeup is the natural weapon against opposite handed hitters, so how well the new version plays may have a major impact on his success or lack thereof in 2021.

The movement profile on the 2020 version of his changeup was decidedly below average, both on the vertical and horizontal planes. Skubal got plenty of backspin on the pitch, with cutter shaped horizontal movement, but as a result it lacked depth and fade away from right-handers. The limited success of the pitch was largely based on velocity separation from his impressive fastball and tunneling the two pitches well together.

The old changeup was also a very high spin efficiency pitch, registering 99 percent active spin according to Statcast. Still, it didn’t have the right combination of characteristics to sink and/or tail away to Skubal’s arm side. There may not have been major improvement possible in terms of making the spin more effective without seriously changing the spin axis on the pitch, a move that would probably require alterations in his release, not just his grip. As the grip experiments didn’t seem to help the circle change, really developing a good offspeed pitch made him willing to try more radical measures.

Instead, Skubal has put aside the circle change for a splitter he developed recently. Changing seam alignments to produce seam-shifted wake movement can work on a high spin efficiency pitch too, but early returns continue to suggest that its maximum utility is likely achieved on pitches with less efficient spin, and more gyro. The splitter is typically a high gyro pitch strongly associated with seam-shifted wake effects. So, as the goal is to get more drop and fade on an offspeed pitch, working on a splitter makes good sense. This is also an area where new pitching coach Chris Fetter, as well as Mize himself, are well qualified to give advice.

In the meantime, the work at Driveline Baseball got the ball rolling.

It took more tweaks and more experimentation, but finally, Skubal got the action he wanted, a diving, fading change-up that could run away from right-handed batters.

“Once I figured it out, I was like, ‘Yes, this is what I came up here to do, and I got the result I wanted,’” Skubal said. “Now it’s just about consistently doing that in all my bullpens going forward.”

Obviously the key is to be able to consistently command the new pitch. That is the difficulty even Mize has with it at times, and whether Skubal can pick it up and throw it effectively remains to be seen. However, Mize doesn’t have the same level of fastball, and so his effectiveness with the splitter is more central to his game. If Skubal can make the splitter into enough of a weapon to keep right-handers on their toes rather than sitting fastball constantly, it could propel him to a lot of success.

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