They arrived together in the big leagues, so maybe it’s no coincidence that they’re arriving now at just about the same time, too.
But nine months after Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal boarded the Tigers’ team plane for the first time, headed to Chicago to make their major-league debuts last August — “Skub and I sat together and we were kind of in awe, honestly,” Mize said at the time — they’re now settling in and feeling like they belong.
Not coincidentally, so are the Tigers, perhaps, as A.J. Hinch & Co. celebrated the franchise’s first sweep of the New York Yankees in seven years Sunday, and their first at home since May 2000, the year Comerica Park opened for business.
That was a lifetime ago for Mize and Skubal, who were both 3-year-olds at the time. But now at 24, they’re two of the top young pitching prospects in Major League Baseball, and this weekend they were the bookend starters behind the brooming of the Bronx Bombers. Or at least what passes for them these days.
Friday night, it was Mize allowing one run while striking out seven — without a walk — in five innings. Sunday afternoon, it was Skubal’s turn to impress, pitching six scoreless innings of three-hit ball in a 6-2 win over the scuffling Yankees. He made some history along the way, too, becoming the first Tigers rookie to record eight or more strikeouts in three consecutive starts.
And when you combine his month of May with that of Mize — both were off to shaky starts in April — it’s about as encouraging as it gets for the Tigers’ future. The two rookies had a 2.48 ERA in 10 starts between them, lasting five innings or more in each one. And for Skubal in particular, Sunday’s performance felt like more than just a quality start, the way the hard-throwing lefty worked out of a first-inning jam and then quickly found a groove.
“We’re watching him mature,” said Hinch, the Tigers’ manager after his team improved to 14-12 this month. “I know I used the same quote with Casey (on Friday), but we’re watching (Skubal) mature as well, at his pace. And we’re obviously seeing some stretches where he can really be a dominant pitcher. We’ve got to continue to build on that.”
Foundation taking shape
There’s plenty to build on here with this starting rotation, and certainly with the array of plus pitches that both rookies possess, not to mention a work ethic that seems to match their talent. Yet what also seems clear here, a third of the way through Hinch’s first season in Detroit, is that there’s a plan and a process and in place that’s better equipped to help these two develop into dependable front-end starters.
It starts with an overarching mandate about their collective approach, one that Hinch explained again Sunday in the context of Skubal’s latest outing. The left-hander can be a bit more erratic with his delivery, and he has given up more than his share of home-run balls this season. But the key, according to his manager, “is still being stubborn and bullish in the strike zone and challenging people.” With all of his pitches, too, not just his fastball.
“I think he’s growing more and more comfortable with his strengths,” Hinch said. “It’s really important for a young pitcher to establish himself, establish his strengths and know the kind of pitcher he is.”
Equally important, though, is to have a pitching coach like Chris Fetter, whose fingerprints are all over this May flowering we’re seeing. The pitch sequencing and the execution are dramatically better this season, and you can throw Spencer Turnbull and Matthew Boyd in here as well with that discussion.
Skubal, for his part, talked after Sunday’s start about some of the bullpen conversations he’d had in recent weeks with Fetter, specifically about finding ways to bottle up the mid- and late-game intensity he has shown and uncorking it earlier in his starts. Much of it’s mental, but they talked about a faster leg lift as one helpful trigger.
And while it still took him a while in this outing, it was better. After giving up a bloop single in a walk to the first two batters, Skubal got some help from Jeimer Candelario at third base snagging a hot shot off the bat of Aaron Judge to start a double play.
But by the time the top of the order came back around, he was rolling, getting ahead in the count — Skubal threw first-pitch strikes to 19 of 23 batters Sunday — and keeping the Yankees off balance with a four-pitch mix. He needed just eight pitches to put away D.J. LeMahieu, Giancarlo Stanton and Judge in the top of the third, starting each with a different strike one — on a fastball, a changeup and a curveball, respectively.
“I think I just did a better job of being present pitch by pitch, getting the sign and really having full conviction on every throw,” said Skubal, who has 39 strikeouts — against only nine walks — over 27 innings in May. “And not worry about the result or anything like that. …That’s part of my process, is just getting more comfortable and confident in myself and understanding how to attach hitters and go about it.”
Skubal was halfway through the lineup a third time when his day was done, having thrown 95 pitches — 64 for strikes — and finishing with 15 swing-and-miss strikes. Seven came off his fastball, four off his changeup, three off the slider and one off a curveball that had the Yankees mostly baffled Sunday. (He topped 96 mph with his fastball, and that curve came bending in at just under 71 mph on one occasion.)
“At the beginning of the game, you wonder, ‘How deep is he gonna go?’” Hinch said. “And then you look back after six innings: no runs, quality start, gave his team a chance to win. That’s a very impressive performance.”
June challenges loom
Another momentum boost for the Tigers, too, as they hit the road and brace for a June slate that’ll be a bit more challenging, including seven of their next 12 games against the A.L. Central-leading White Sox.
Still, this feels like a different team now that the bats are starting to find some life — Jonathan Schoop was on base four times Sunday — and the starting rotation is giving Detroit a chance most nights.
The Tigers’ run differential in April was minus-58 in 27 games. Heading into a Memorial Day matinee in Milwaukee, the Tigers are plus-4 in 26 games. And while some of that’s a function of playing some of the league’s weaker-hitting teams — strangely, the Yankees are one of them this spring — it’s also a sign of genuine progress.
“This has been a few weeks now where we’ve put some things together, where we’ve had our stretches of good and only spurts of bad, and I think the players start to feel that momentum and feel that excitement,” Hinch said. “We’ve got to keep going.”
Next stop, Milwaukee. And then after that, they’ll fly to Chicago, with a couple of rookies on board who don’t seem to be in awe anymore.