Cheddar balls and splitters: Tigers’ Skubal ready to debut his new array of pitches

Detroit News

Detroit — It’s enough to make a player wistful, nostalgic even.

Derek Holland, once upon a time, could ring a radar gun — 95 mph, 96, occasionally bump it to 97. And even now at age 34, he can still bring it in pretty firm (94-95 mph in his shorter bullpen stints). Which he can feel pretty good about, until he watches what comes out of 24-year-old Tarik Skubal’s left arm.

“He reminds me of myself when I was younger, throwing absolute cheddar balls,” Holland said with a grin. “I’m at 95 but he’s at 98-99. That’s real cheddar balls.”

Skubal will make his 2021 debut against the Indians Sunday and he’s done nothing this spring to discourage the notion that he’s ready to establish himself as a front-of-the-rotation force.

“Tarik wants to be that guy,” Holland said. “That’s what’s great about these young guys here (including rookie Casey Mize and prospect Matt Manning). Each one is hungry to be that guy. They all want to be the Justin Verlander of Detroit. When he was here, he was the dominant guy, the ace, the guy.

“That’s what Tarik wants and he is making a statement. I love to see that.”

Skubal has been in Holland’s ear this spring, which also takes Holland back to his younger days.

“In my (Texas) Rangers days, Nolan Ryan was the president of the organization,” Holland said. “And the thing I learned was, if you want to learn, if you want to know something, you approach him. You don’t wait for Nolan to approach you.

“That just shows you want to learn something.”

Skubal learned plenty in his seven starts last season. He learned that as formidable as his upper-90s fastball is, he can’t have consistent success without better secondary weaponry. The Indians gave him an abject lesson on that in his second start last year.

They kept fouling his fastballs off, spoiling them, and, consequently, he was at 69 pitches and out of the game after 2-1/3 innings. That despite five strikeouts.

“Definitely want to keep in mind what happened in that outing and understanding what was going on,” Skubal said. “I threw a lot of fastballs and they were fouling them off. But that was because I wasn’t really landing anything else for strikes.

“I need to get into my counts and throw the off-speed when I need it and then go back to the fastball.”

Skubal has a new tool in his kit this year. He spent the offseason developing a split-change, which should alter the approach of left-handed and right-handed hitters against him.

“With the splitter, that’s really the pitch,” he said. “I got good results with it early in camp and I was like, ‘That’s the thing I want to keep working on and continue to throw.’ It was huge to get affirmation from the hitters that that was a good pitch.”

Affirmation, too, was his overall performance this spring, the 18 strikeouts and three runs allowed in 17 spring innings.

“What I expect out of myself is going to be higher because I learned a ton last year,” he said. “I feel like I am at a place where I can go out and compete better.”

And let’s not kid ourselves. He wants that belt. Courtesy of Holland, the pitcher of the game gets possession of an authentic WWE championship belt, which Matthew Boyd got after the opener.

“I told Boyd he had to set the tone,” Skubal said. “It’s really fun. It’s a pretty cool thing.”

Twitter: @cmccosky

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