Detroit Tigers left-hander Tarik Skubal always assumed his role would change at some point this season because of the imposed innings limits to the team’s young pitchers. Fellow rookie Casey Mize could face a similar reality this summer.
When right-hander Spencer Turnbull returned to the rotation this week, manager AJ Hinch turned to what he described as a modified six-man rotation.
Essentially, the Tigers have five starting pitchers: Turnbull, Mize, Matthew Boyd, Jose Urena and Michael Fulmer, with Skubal molding into a hybrid role. He will bounce between starter and reliever duties for the foreseeable future. At some point, the Tigers will implement a true six-man rotation.
“It’s no different,” Skubal said Thursday. “It’s the same game, whether I’m throwing out of the bullpen or starting that game. It’s the same. I kind of figured something was going to happen this year in a unique situation to get everyone from start to finish.”
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Despite the shake-up, Hinch has provided Skubal an up-to-date schedule of when he will pitch, both as a starter and reliever. On Wednesday, the 24-year-old pitched out of the bullpen in a 3-2 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates in Game 1 of a seven-inning doubleheader.
Skubal recorded three scoreless innings in the fifth, sixth and seventh on three hits and three walks, with two strikeouts. He escaped a two-on, two-out sixth inning by getting Erik Gonzalez to pop out. In the seventh, second baseman Willi Castro made a spectacular play to retire Colin Moran and strand the bases loaded.
“It was a new experience for him, other than spring training, just coming in and being loose,” Hinch said Wednesday. “When we got him fired up and in there, he pitched out of trouble pretty well. I think his fastball is still his best pitch. Obviously, he was a little erratic today and is still getting his pitch count (too high). But when the big at-bats came, he won them. That’s a big step for him.”
Of Skubal’s 62 pitches, 37 went for strikes.
He used 35 four-seam fastballs, 18 sliders and nine splitters. His fastball reached 95.4 mph and averaged 93.7 mph. Last season, his fastball averaged 94.4 mph. The average spin rate on Skubal’s fastball is also down this season — from 2,422 revolutions per minute in 2020 to 2,214 rpm in 2021. He is struggling to command it.
Yet there’s nothing wrong physically.
Hinch wants Skubal to get away from using his newfound splitter — which Hinch called his fourth-best pitch — as his premier strike pitch. Hinch wants more sliders and curveballs to compliment his fastball, thus getting ahead early in counts. Without focusing as much on guiding his splitter into the strike zone, Skubal’s dominant fastball could return.
“That’s a learning process for him,” Hinch said.
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As Hinch put his modified six-man rotation in place, he made sure to signal Skubal’s transition to the bullpen wasn’t a demotion because of poor results. He still considers the young lefty a starting pitcher.
“It has nothing to do with performance or health,” Hinch said. “It’s a long-term view and a long-term plan to get these guys through the season. We targeted this time when we went to a modified six-man rotation. We knew we would have this at some point, and we’ll probably do it a couple of times. … It’s a plan, not a reaction.”
In Skubal’s first three starts he gave up two runs in 5⅓ innings against Cleveland, six runs in four innings against Cleveland and two runs (one earned) in four innings against the Oakland Athletics. The Tigers lost all three. His pitch counts were too high — 87 pitches in his first start, 75 in his second and 88 in his third.
Skubal owns a 4.96 ERA this season with 12 walks and 14 strikeouts. He has pitched 16⅓ innings across four games. Last year, he allowed 11 walks in 32 innings (eight games, seven starts), tossing in 37 strikeouts to go with his 5.63 ERA.
The next task for Skubal is to pitch behind Fulmer or Turnbull on Sunday or Monday against the Kansas City Royals. He will be used during one of those two games, depending on when the Tigers need him most.
And it’s another chance to clean up his repertoire.
“It’s obviously frustrating,” Skubal said about struggling with his fastball. “But you can’t let that get to you. … You come here every day, get a chance to play chance, and then you get an opportunity to compete. And it’s just about competing at that point.”
Evan Petzold is a sports reporter at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.