Tarik Skubal is stuck.
The rookie left-hander is somewhere between really good and not so good. He feels like he is getting close to a breakthrough game, where he unleashes the talent that took him from a ninth-round draft pick to one of the best pitching prospects in baseball.
Detroit Tigers manager AJ Hinch thinks the same way, as he works with pitching coach Chris Fetter to mold the 24-year-old into a future frontline starter. Catcher Jake Rogers, who spent time with Skubal in the minor leagues, also believes development could soon evolve into dominance.
“He gets out there and things go a little fast for him,” Hinch said Friday. “He’s trying to make sure he’s doing this and doing that. He starts thinking a little bit and eases off the gas pedal to try to execute. We do need execution, but we need conviction more than that.”
Through eight games (six starts) this season, Skubal is 0-6 with a 5.73 ERA, 17 walks, 31 strikeouts and 11 home runs allowed in 33 innings. He is 1-10 in his career. In 2020, Skubal finished with a 5.63 ERA in eight games (seven starts) across 32 innings.
Yet Skubal still gets glowing reviews.
“He’s got the stuff,” said Rogers, who launched a solo home run in Friday’s 4-2 loss to the Chicago Cubs at Comerica Park “I believe in him 100%. He’s going to be great, and he’s going to be great for a long time. One of these days, he’s going to find it. I believe in him. I really do. It’ll click. It’s coming, and I feel it.”
“His stuff is good enough against any team,” Hinch said.
When Skubal took the mound to face the Cubs, his biggest problem showed.
His arsenal is superb, and he has showcased the full package in spurts in both seasons. But he must make mental adjustments.
One example came in the first inning against the Cubs, when he struck out Wilson Contreras looking with a 96 mph fastball and got Kris Bryant swinging with a curveball. Anthony Rizzo popped out to the catcher for a perfect 12-pitch inning.
To open the second inning, Skubal struck out Javier Baez swinging with a 96 mph fastball.
“He is showing little glimpses of what he can do,” Hinch said. “I think the middle part of the game he was a little tentative and started to guide the ball. I do like the way he got into the game, came in pretty hot. At the end, that last inning was a good inning for him.”
From the second inning through the fifth inning, the Cubs did all their damage. They put together eight hits, one walk, one hit-by-pitch and four runs. Skubal escaped the fourth inning with one single allowed, thanks to a double play.
In the third, Bryant crushed his 10th homer this season for a 2-0 lead. A flurry of hard hits doomed Skubal. He gave up doubles to Jason Heyward and Anthony Rizzo in the fifth inning — with a walk and wild pitch between the extra-base knocks — to fall behind by three runs.
A bloop single from Baez made it 4-0.
During the fifth, Skubal’s fastball sat between 92-93 mph. In his perfect sixth inning, the same fastball hovered between 94-95 mph. His fastball averaged 94.5 mph throughout the game, dropped as low as 92.3 mph and maxed out at 97 mph.
“I should be coming at guys with everything I’ve got with every single pitch that I throw in a game,” Skubal said. “I throw 100 pitches, every single pitch needs to be with the right intent and the right conviction with every throw. That’s something I acknowledged coming out of that fifth inning. I needed to be more aggressive.”
Skubal sent down Matt Duffy with a 94.6 mph fastball to begin the sixth inning. Nico Hoerner and Heyward, the next two batters, grounded out. Skubal threw 12 pitches — just like in his strong first inning — and appeared to be a completely different pitcher.
The positive: Skubal pitched six innings for the first time this season. His pitch count and strike-throwing struggles have hindered him from efficiency in the past. This time, he threw 64 of his 95 pitches for strikes with one walk. Last start, he threw 62 of his 96 pitches for strikes with two walks in five innings.
“For me, it’s just keeping my foot on the gas at all times,” Skubal said. “I feel like I get into cruise control almost. Just being able to get back to competing with every single pitch and being present with every pitch and understanding what you’re trying to do on the mound.
“That’s something I need to be better at.”
Evan Petzold is a sports reporter at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold. Read more on the Detroit Tigers and sign up for our Tigers newsletter.