In a lengthy rebuild filled with disappointment, — see the past three seasons in the American League Central cellar, or the 2017 Justin Verlander trade — these two pitchers are the keys to unlocking the next step toward contention. Without them becoming cornerstone starters, reviving the franchise gets a tad trickier.
More, from manager AJ Hinch: “Eventually, it’s not about development. It needs to be about winning.
“They are two pitchers that are definitely going to give us a chance to win as we move forward.”
It needs to be about winning.
That quote alone, from the World Series-winning skipper who instructed Verlander, Gerrit Cole, Lance McCullers Jr. and Dallas Keuchel, should be enough to tell you how much the Tigers need Mize and Skubal. It’s also clear Hinch believes they’re still in the development stage.
He’s right, considering Mize and Skubal have pitched 11 and 12 games, respectively, in their MLB careers. They are rookies by league standards. But there appears to be enough evidence that these admired up-and-comers are making progress.
They are getting wiser with every start, learning the nuances ingrained in the art of pitching. Baseball is also a results-based industry. While it’s too soon to make long-term judgments, there have been some inconsistencies.
“We’re going to see a little bit of success, a little bit of failure, a little bit more success, maybe a step back,” Hinch said. “That journey across the first full season in the big leagues is what both of them are going to have to conquer. By the end of the year, we want them established with how they go about it, how they prepare, how they believe in their stuff and then how to apply it.”
The 23-year-old right-hander earlier this season made shutting down the Houston Astros look easy. The Astros went to two World Series, picking up one championship, from 2017-19 with Hinch as their manager, plus an ALCS appearance in 2020 after his departure.
Mize, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 draft, posted seven scoreless innings on April 12 for his first MLB victory.
His performance marked one of the most encouraging wins for the future since the rebuild started five years ago. Slugging first baseman Renato Nunez, who hit a homer that game but was recently designated for assignment, simply said: “Ace.”
“I say this a lot: It’s never as good as it seems, it’s never as bad as it seems,” Mize said. “I look back at that start and, yeah, the results yielded really good results that day. But it’s never as good as it seems. There are things I took from that start that I’m going to apply moving forward. I look at the Oakland start the same way.”
Mize faced the Oakland Athletics for his third start April 17, nearing the conclusion of a grueling 10-day road trip. He got beat up for five runs — on three home runs — through five innings. He gave up seven hits, earned four strikeouts and, a huge positive, did not issue a walk.
“That one was not near as good results-wise, but it’s never as bad as it seems,” Mize said. “I don’t think the Houston start validated anything for me other than keep trusting your process and results like this can happen, you just got to keep moving forward.”
He struggled again in Friday’s 6-2 loss to the Kansas City Royals, allowing six runs on seven hits and three walks in 4⅔ innings. Two of those runs came on solo home runs in the second and fourth innings, but the other four were scored in a disastrous fifth inning that Mize couldn’t finish.
“He kind of got into his outing, and then they had the big, explosive inning,” Hinch said, “where he couldn’t just execute a pitch at the end of the at-bat to make them put the ball either on the ground or soft contact. They’re a good team. They find ways to make contact, and you make a mistake, they make you pay for it.
“And it’s another reminder for Casey that execution is critical.”
Consistently locating his fastball is pivotal to Mize’s growth. He’s learning to elevate his fastball and starting to throw his splitter toward the bottom of the strike zone more often than in the dirt. Therefore, sequencing his pitches is significant, too. Similar to how his splitter got him to the top of the draft, so did his command.
And fastball command is necessary to achieve first-pitch strikes. He did this well in his 2021 debut against the Minnesota Twins.
Only one batter — Jake Cave in the second inning — went to a three-ball count in the first, second and third innings. In the fourth, he struggled to get ahead in counts, gave up one run and didn’t return for the fifth.
Mize took his stuff a step further in his second start against Houston. Efficiency (89 pitches, 62 strikes), command, sequencing and weak contact guided him through the star-studded Astros lineup. He flat-out dominated. These aspects of his game weren’t so good in his last two appearances.
Yet he’s only made four starts. He has a 5.23 ERA in 20⅔ innings, with 23 hits, 12 earned runs, seven walks and 14 strikeouts. There’s a lot of baseball to be played.
“We should really shut all that off and maybe do a five-start increment,” Hinch said. “Like, let it mature and happen over time and not get so reactive to every single game. Getting the data, getting the information and making a reaction off that, that’s like 30-32 reactionary events. We don’t want our pitchers to be that way.”
Through four games (three starts), the 24-year-old has a 4.96 ERA, 12 walks and 14 strikeouts across 16⅓ innings. He has given up 14 hits and nine earned runs. There are plenty of outings ahead of him, too. Right now, Skubal is working out of the bullpen in a modified six-man rotation to combat innings limits.
Hinch said he is still a starter.
“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 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 three starts, he allowed two runs in 5⅓ innings against Cleveland, six runs in four innings against Cleveland and two runs (one earned) in four innings against the A’s. His pitch counts exposed inefficiencies: 87 pitches in his first start, 75 in his second and 88 in his third.
The Tigers lost all three games.
“Tarik has had to make adjustments with getting into better counts, establishing himself,” Hinch said. “He’s a fastball dominant pitcher who’s trying to find his way inside the strike zone. Being comfortable with the routine and being comfortable with your prep, the next step is being comfortable with your stuff.”
Skubal appeared out of the bullpen Wednesday in a 3-2 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates during Game 1 of a doubleheader. He fired three scoreless innings but allowed three hits and three walks, with two strikeouts. He needed 62 pitches (37 strikes) to get nine outs.
His fastball is averaging 93.6 mph this season. Last year, this pitch 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.
The pitch mix from Skubal is a work in progress. He continues to throw his fastball more than 50% of the time, but he has turned to more sliders this season. Recently, he has gotten into a habit of relying too much on his new splitter. If his splitter becomes an afterthought, Skubal’s dominant fastball could return.
“I think that’s just being competitive in the strike zone with those pitches and getting ahead of guys and getting guys in counts where they’re uncomfortable,” Skubal said. “And then maybe throwing the splitter a little less. Just get my usage of those two pitches up more, and that will take away from the fastball percentage, too.”
“Tarik is going to throw more curveballs and sliders as the year progresses and get away from his split,” Hinch said. “And not use his fourth-best pitch as much as he’s used it. That’s a learning process for him.”
Fastball command, sequencing, pitch usage and consistencywill ultimately determine success for Mize and Skubal, two young pitchers with impressive repertoires.
The Tigers remain confident in the process they’re taking. Each pitcher is trying to combine the past lessons learned to generate a prolonged breakthrough in the majors.
Waiting for that to happen can’t last forever.
“There’s going to be a point where we expect these guys to perform at an elite level,” Hinch said. “Start to start to start.”