As Tarik Skubal struggles, Detroit Tigers’ AJ Hinch insist pitcher can handle major leagues

Detroit Free Press

Detroit Tigers manager AJ Hinch believes rookie Tarik Skubal can make improvements in the major leagues. Toward the conclusion of spring training, the 24-year-old started to struggle, and he continues to struggle in the regular season.

His fastball command is often non-existent, and that seems to spill into the rest of his arsenal. The spin rates on his fastballs dropped and the average fastball velocity decreased from 94.4 mph last season to 93.7 mph this season.

With each poor outing, Skubal gets more frustrated.

“The level isn’t the issue,” Hinch said Friday, after Skubal gave up three home runs in a 10-0 loss to the New York Yankees. “For him, the consistency is being asked out of him at the highest level. I do think he can figure it out.”

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It didn’t help that Friday’s game featured another poor night for the Tigers offensively. Their pitching staff allowed nine runs in the first four innings, while Yankees starter Gerrit Cole dominated. But New York didn’t need anything more than Gio Urshela’s RBI single for a 1-0 lead in the first inning to guarantee the series-opening win.

The Tigers (8-19) have lost 13 of their past 15 games. They have the worst record in baseball, a minus-58 run differential, a league-worst .199 batting average and are also league-worst in about every other offensive statistic.

“We have to be realistic with where we’re at,” Hinch said. “We’re not doing enough positive things right now to feel good about anything. I mean, you don’t want to make rash decisions. Obviously, after a month, you can evaluate it. You got to look at all your options. But it’s pretty frustrating.

“Right after the game, it’s kind of raw, so it’s hard to kind of capture my thoughts right now, but it’s not a good feeling. All of us need to do a better job.”

[ Tigers crushed, 10-0, by Yankees in series opener for 13th loss in past 15 games ]

During the past 15 games, the Tigers are hitting 80-for-450 (.178) with 26 runs, 23 walks and 161 strikeouts during that span. They struck out 18 times Friday against the Yankees and 22 times in a seven-inning doubleheader, totaling 14 innings, Thursday against the Chicago White Sox.

“There’s not a lot of free playing time,” Hinch said. “If guys start playing well, I’m going to play them. We need to put guys in the lineup that can be productive, put up good at-bats, hit the ball hard, find hits. I mean, we can’t afford to just sit around and wait and play fairness.”

As the pressure to provide better results intensifies, Skubal is one of the many players going through troubles. He needed 77 pitches to make it through his three-inning start, allowing four runs on five hits and two walks.

Hinch thought his fastball in the first inning looked better than his previous games. His fastball averaged 94.2 mph and topped out at 95.6 mph, which is another small improvement.

But Skubal didn’t execute his pitches.

“We have to clean up his delivery and be more consistent with his delivery,” Hinch said. “He’s got a huge front side, a big leg kick. He doesn’t always land in the same spot. His release point is not always in the same spot. He sprays some balls up. Right now, until we control his delivery, we’re not going to be able to control his contact.”

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He gave up three solo home runs — to Clint Frazier (fastball), Aaron Judge (fastball) and Aaron Hicks (splitter) — in the second and third innings. He was trying to go up and in with his fastball to Judge, but he missed down the middle of the strike zone.

“Right pitch, wrong location,” Skubal said.

If a brief description was needed, those four words could summarize his season.

Skubal is 0-4 with a 6.14 ERA, 14 walks and 18 strikeouts in 22 innings across six games (four starts). His pitch counts: 87 pitches for 5⅓ innings, 75 for four innings, 88 for four innings, 62 for three innings, 61 for 2⅔ innings and 77 for three innings.

He owns a career 5.83 ERA with 25 walks and 55 strikeouts in 54 innings. He has pitched 14 games (11 starts) between the 2020 and 2021 seasons.

“We’re watching a kid develop at this level,” Hinch said. “There’s going to be some hiccups along the way, especially for a guy who keeps the ball up for the most part. … Obviously, it’s always a work in progress. We’ve got to find and grab some good out of his outings, we also need to grab some development topics and continue to nudge him in the right direction.

“Development in the big leagues is super tricky, both mentally and physically, and Tarik is a good example of that. But he is more than equipped to pitch at this level.”

And Skubal is trying to stay positive.

“It’s all part of the process of a full season,” Skubal said. “There are things to learn from it, and I’ll learn from it, watch some video and see what I take away. It’s always a learning lesson. It’s never a step back.”

Evan Petzold is a sports reporter at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold. Read more on the Detroit Tigers and sign up for our Tigers newsletter

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