How Detroit Tigers rookie Tarik Skubal took ‘another step forward’ in development

Detroit Free Press

Detroit Tigers rookie Tarik Skubal is making improvements.

He is learning to mix his pitches to generate strikeouts, as displayed by back-to-back outings with nine strikeouts. He ditched his new splitter for his old changeup, and his fastball velocity is back to topping out at 98 mph.

Skubal, 24, is more comfortable on the mound than he was earlier this season.

“We’re watching Tarik mature,” Tigers manager AJ Hinch said after Tuesday’s 4-1 loss to Cleveland at Comerica Park. “He’s starting to learn (about) himself, even more so than he’s learning the league. As he incorporates both of those, he’s going to be a little more pitch efficient.

“But the stuff is real. You talk to guys that have faced him and having been around him now, it’s clear why he can be good at this level. He is taking step-by-step progress, and tonight was another step forward.”

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Against Cleveland, Skubal gave up two runs on six hits and one walk. His record dropped to 1-7, but the Tigers didn’t provide run support. The offense couldn’t score until the ninth inning and stranded the bases loaded when the final out was made.

As Cleveland starter Aaron Civale put his efficiency on display, Skubal made it through just five innings.

Skubal threw 28 pitchers in the first inning, 17 in the second, 14 in the third, 16 in the fourth and 18 in the fifth. He got 15 swings and misses, including seven with his four-seam fastball and five with his slider. 

“He uses a lot of pitches some innings,” Hinch said. “That keeps his outings short. He was really close to going out for the sixth, had he been able to get through the fifth a little bit easier. But I thought he did a good job rebounding.”

Cesar Hernandez unloaded on a 93 mph fastball — Skubal’s second pitch of the game — to give Cleveland a 1-0 lead. The blast from Hernandez was the MLB-leading 13th home run allowed by Skubal in 43 innings.

“It’s a middle-middle fastball,” Skubal said. “That’s not where I’m trying to throw that pitch, so that’s the result you’re going to get. I just need to be better at executing pitches.”

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But Skubal responded with consecutive strikeouts against Jose Ramirez and Jordan Luplow. When a walk and a single to put runners on the corners with two outs, he escaped the jam by getting Harold Ramirez to line out to center field.

In the fourth inning, Cleveland had runners on second and third with no outs. Skubal sent down the next three batters — conceding one run on Owen Miller’s grounder to shortstop — to limit the damage.

“It’s hard to argue that this wasn’t one of his better starts, just stuff-wise,” Hinch said. “His breaking ball was pretty good. He didn’t have to rely on his changeup as much. Velocity has been good. We just didn’t score any runs for him, and I think that was tough on him to have to be perfect.”

Not getting into the sixth inning, considering how well he was pitching, bothered Skubal. He fell behind 3-0 in the fifth inning to Jose Ramirez, and the slugger ripped a two-out single. Had Skubal retired him, he might have gotten the sixth.

Still, there were positives from Skubal’s 10th appearance in 2021. Despite not commanding his fastball in the first inning, he made use of his slider as his go-to strike pitch. His slider earned him five swinging strikeouts. He also got two swinging strikeouts with his fastball, one called strikeout with his fastball and one called strikeout with his curveball. 

In the past, Skubal’s lack of fastball command caused him to unravel.

This time, he found a solution.

“That’s what set up the game,” Skubal said about his slider. “I felt like I was commanding that pitch and was able to expand it late and land it early. It just felt good today. … It’s more about conviction, really buying into the pitch and throwing it with everything I’ve got.”

The bigger picture

Skubal during his four starts has a 4.29 ERA, six walks and 31 strikeouts in 21 innings.

He allowed five home runs during that span, which led to the majority of runs against him, but his strikeout-to-walk ratio continues to improve.

“I’m not content with where I’m at right now,” Skubal said. “But I think no one should be, no matter who you are. Just continue to work harder and try to be the best version of yourself. Maximize your potential is something I’m big on. That’s where I’m at right now.”

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Through six games (four starts) in April, Skubal recorded a 6.14 ERA, 14 walks and 18 strikeouts in 22 innings. The reason he is pitching better across four starts in May comes down to his confidence.

For Skubal, the development process is more mental than physical.

“Just understanding what I’m doing,” Skubal said. “When I’m missing, understanding how to get back in the zone. Understanding how my stuff plays and when to use it and where to throw it is big for me.”

Assuming there aren’t any setbacks, the next step is trimming his pitch count.

“I just need to be better at being in the zone and getting guys into counts,” Skubal said. “I can strike guys out in three or four pitches. It doesn’t always have to be seven or eight pitches. That’s when the pitch count starts to build up. I need to do a better job of getting 0-1 and 0-2, and then getting guys uncomfortable and not wasting anything.”

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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