How Detroit Tigers’ Spencer Turnbull is developing into a ‘workhorse starter’

Detroit Free Press

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The Detroit Tigers are starting to see something new from Spencer Turnbull.

It’s not that Turnbull has suddenly evolved; his command can still be spotty, but there’s a high ceiling for growth in this category. The development, fueled by confidence, is already evident.

For example, there’s Turnbull’s start in Monday’s 3-2 loss against the Kansas City Royals at Comerica Park. The 28-year-old, in his third full MLB season, gave up three runs through six innings with five strikeouts. It was his second start in 2021 after returning from a positive COVID-19 test in spring training.

Seems like an average start, but take note that Turnbull didn’t allow a walk.

“It’s something I’ve been trying to work on the last couple years,” Turnbull said Monday about his command. “It’s just taken a whole to really start to figure that out. I don’t know that I’ve figured it out or anything yet, but I definitely feel better.”

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He got ahead in counts early in at-bats, throwing quality strikes in the zone and attacking hitters, concepts preached by manager AJ Hinch and pitching coach Chris Fetter. Throughout his 47-game career, Turnbull has been nearly unstoppable in an 0-2 count — a .134 batting average, seven walks and 86 strikeouts in 157 at-bats. After a 1-0 count, however, he allows a .294 batting average with 70 walks and 66 strikeouts in 323 at-bats.

Earlier in Turnbull’s career, he was afraid of contact. That isn’t happening as much in 2021.

“Just trusting my stuff and knowing that if I get ahead, I’m going to have way more success,” Turnbull said. “I’m going to give up some hits, might give up a couple homers, but at the end of the day, the results are going to be more in my favor than not. I’m definitely not trying to walk anybody — ever.”

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Against the Royals, Turnbull got first-pitch strikes in 14 of 23 at-bats. 

One of the first-pitch strikes went to Royals veteran Carlos Santana. He swung-and-missed at Turnbull’s 95 mph fastball in the strike zone. Home-plate umpire Bill Welke appeared to miss a second-pitch strike on a slider, making the count 1-1.

Santana knocked the next pitch — a fastball —for a two-run home run to right field, giving the Royals a 2-0 lead in the third inning.

“I thought I had him 0-2,” Turnbull said. “It completely changes the at-bat. But still, 1-1, if I’m making my pitch, if I get it up and in like it should’ve been, I’m probably not giving up a homer there. I left it just a little too down, more in his wheelhouse, kind of belt high. That’s baseball. Frustrating. That’s the difference in two runs, so it sucks sometimes.”

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In the fifth inning, Kansas City’s small ball shined. Jarrod Dyson doubled to left field, Nicky Lopez advanced him to third base with a sacrifice bunt and Whit Merrifield scored him with a sacrifice fly to left field. This sequence delivered the winning run.

A disappointed Turnbull struck out Santana on three pitches to finish the fifth, dusting him with a curveball. He came back with two more strikeouts in a three up, three down sixth inning to complete his second outing this season.

“I was pissed, to be honest,” Turnbull said. “I had Merrifield in a pretty good count (1-1), and I threw a good pitch. It was a down and in sinker, but he gets those balls down and in pretty well. I just felt like I didn’t quite get it in enough. He got a really good piece of it.”

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For Turnbull’s first start, in a 5-2 win April 21 over the Pittsburgh Pirates, he completed five innings, allowing one run on two hits and two walks with six strikeouts. He tossed 62 pitches before Hinch went to the bullpen.

Turnbull fired 81 pitches (53 strikes) Monday across six innings. He could’ve gone into the seventh, but he is still building up his pitch limit. Through two outings, he has a 3.27 ERA, 0.818 WHIP, two walks and 11 strikeouts in 11 innings. 

“I like the way my stuff moves, like what it does,” Turnbull said. “Just kind of refining that consistency. Taking the next step is more about limiting walks, getting ahead, keeping the pitch count down, getting deeper into ballgames and throwing more innings every year.

“That’s the bigger step I want to take to solidify myself as a workhorse starter in the league.”

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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