Minneapolis — Belief is a powerful tool. Not only self-belief, but being believed in.
When the Tigers lost both Matthew Boyd and Spencer Turnbull in early June, at a time when another veteran starting pitcher, Jose Urena, was beginning to scuffle, they didn’t panic. They didn’t seek to add a more seasoned pitcher or two.
They turned to a pair of rookies, both of whom had their troubles in April. The consensus, from general manager Al Avila, to manager AJ Hinch, to pitching coach Chris Fetter, was that Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal would step up.
Did they ever. They took charge of the rotation and were catalysts in the Tigers’ turnaround (31-24 since May 8). But, the way Hinch sees it, there was no cause and effect between the injuries and the performance of Mize and Skubal.
It was more about elite talent rising to the surface.
“I don’t put limitations on anybody,” Hinch said. “I can see how the curiosity is there how it timed up with Matt and Spencer, but I think it has nothing to do with that. These guys are developing rapidly at this level. I joke about the kids growing up right before our eyes, but we’re seeing a maturation process.
“I’m so proud of those guys … They are growing at this level and they are learning at this level and it doesn’t surprise me. We needed it because of that timeline, but it doesn’t surprise me in the least.”
Understand, though, the Tigers’ season was in peril. They’d already lost veteran Julio Teheran in April. Urena, after a stint on the injured list (forearm cramp), is still trying to regain traction having not finished five innings in his last five starts before the All-Star break.
When Boyd and Turnbull went out, Hinch was essentially mixing and matching bullpen pieces in two of the five rotation spots. Had Mize and Skubal not stepped up, well, Hinch isn’t going to dwell on negative what-ifs.
“I can’t focus so much on what could’ve been or the nervousness that came with it,” Hinch said. “I get that it’s rare to have to lean on young pitching quickly, but you’d be surprised what can happen if we take the governor off.”
If you dare to believe. If you dare to let a young pitcher learn and grow from failure. If you are willing to endure a step back if it leads to three steps forward. Sometimes young players blossom.
“I think this industry can be surprised every now and then and what guys can do,” Hinch said. “I’ve watched guys come right out of the draft and race to the big leagues and hold their own. I think perspective goes a long way.
“If you see these guys get their work in and how they go about their business every day, you would be optimistic about the future of this rotation.”
Mize had a rough spring training and he wobbled out of the gate in April. He’d lost the feel on his bread-and-butter splitter. He was having trouble commanding the inside quadrants of the strike zone, trouble trusting his elevated fastball.
Skubal was lights-out in spring, but he looked like a different pitcher in April. The velocity on his fastball was down, almost like he was trying to guide the ball into the strike zone. The splitter he incorporated over the winter turned out to be counterproductive on two levels — hitters were bashing it and the mechanics of throwing it was negatively impacting his fastball. He ended up being sent to the bullpen for a brief stretch.
Mize had a 5.06 ERA in April and opponents were slashing .267/.351/.485 against him. The Tigers were 2-3 in his starts.
Skubal posted a 6.14 ERA in April with opponents slugging .609 with an OPS of .978. The Tigers were winless in his six outings.
There was no talk of abandoning the project.
“Getting to compete at this level and not having immediate success is actually a great precursor for adjustments that need to be made at this level,” Hinch said. “These guys have to learn that you have to fight through some of this adversity. The faster they have to fight through it the better.”
Neither was afforded the opportunity to learn these lessons in Triple-A. They were tossed into the deep end and had to either learn to swim or drown.
Fetter got Mize to start his delivery from the third base side of the rubber, which helped solve his issues with commanding the inner half. The splitter didn’t come around until July, but his ability to command his four-seam, two-seam, slider and curveball in and out of the zone, as well as a beyond-his-years ability to read swings and adjust game plans on the fly made that a non-issue.
In 12 starts since the beginning of May, Mize has a 3.01 ERA with opponents slashing .222/.287/.371 against him. Opponents’ OPS has dropped nearly 200 points since April.
The Tigers are 8-4 in those starts.
A snapshot: July 2 at Comerica Park. Back-to-back at-bats against White Sox slugger Jose Abreu.
In the first inning, Mize threw a 94-mph sinker, followed it with a 85-mph splitter and then threw a 95-mph two-seamer by him for a swinging strike two. He had him guessing. And seeing that Abreu is 1 for 11 against Mize in two seasons, guessing is a bad strategy against a pitcher with so many weapons.
Abreu was guessing spin on the 1-2 pitch and he got another 95-mph two-seamer through the heart of the plate. Called strike three.
Go to the third. Mize started Abreu with two straight splitters and got ahead 0-2 and missed with a two-seamer. Abreu again had to be thinking Mize would go back to the splitter or something with spin. Mize pored another two-seamer over the plate, freezing Abreu again.
“Casey Mize is just a good pitcher,” Hinch said. “He can get guys out any way he wants to.”
Skubal scrapped his splitter for a more traditional change-up and his fastball velocity got back up to 95, 96, 97 mph. With that came more trust in his secondary pitches.
“For the most part, he’s been a reliable strike-thrower with multiple pitches,” Hinch said. “He’s been bullish with his fastball but I’ve been impressed that he’s been able to land his off-speed pitches with more regularity and control bat speed by doing it.
“He’s a fastball pitcher and pitches to the big part of the plate and challenges guys (thus the 19 home runs he’s allowed). But he also has a more well-rounded repertoire than most people would expect.”
Skubal has also made 12 starts since May 1, posting a 3.78 ERA. Opponents are slugging .417 with a .731 OPS, down 257 points.
The Tigers are 7-5 in his starts.
Snapshot: Thursday night at Target Field, Skubal’s first two battles with the always dangerous Josh Donaldson.
First inning, Skubal missed with a first-pitch, four-seamer at 94, but landed a 72-mph knuckle-curve to even the count. He threw him back-to-back four-seamers at 96 and 95 mph up in the zone. Donaldson fouled the second one off and it was 2-2.
Seeing three four-seamers in the at-bat, Donaldson’s bat was sped up, so much so that Skubal’s hard slider (88 mph) got on his hands and he rolled out to shortstop.
In the fourth, Skubal started him with a change-up off the plate and then got ahead 1-2 with a four-seamer, riding true through the zone, and then a two-seamer riding in on him.
Skubal came back with a 95-mph four-seamer that Donaldson, after seeing the hard slider in the first at-bat, was late on and foul-tipped into Jake Rogers glove.
“These guys are talented,” Hinch said. “With their work ethic, their attention to detail, the way they absorb all the information from Fetter and Juan (Nieves, assistant pitching coach), I don’t know what’s possible. They can get even better. We’re not even done yet.”
By the numbers: Rookies rise
►17 starts: 5-5, 3.59, 1.14
► 5 starts: 5.06 ERA, .267/.351/.485, .836 OPS
►Tigers record in his starts: 2-3
May, June, July
►12 starts: 3.01 ERA, .222/.287/.371, .658 OPS
►Tigers record in his starts: 8-4
►16 starts: 5-8, 4.36, 1.376
►6 games, 4 starts: 6.14 ERA, .264/.369/.609, .978 OPS
►Tigers record in his outings: 0-6.
May, June, July
►12 starts: 3.78 ERA, .240/.313/.417, .730 OPS
►Tigers record in his starts: 7-5
On deck: Twins
► First pitch: 2:10 p.m.
► TV/Radio: BSD, 97.1
► TBA, Tigers: The Tigers pushed Wily Peralta’s start date to Sunday, which allows Jose Urena to skip his turn against the Twins, a team he will face in the first game after the All-Star break. Depending on the bullpen usage Friday, Tyler Alexander or Erasmo Ramirez could be in line for the short-inning start.
► RHP Bailey Ober (1-1, 4.85), Twins: The rookie hasn’t pitched beyond five innings in his seven big-league starts, but he blanked the White Sox on two hits over five in his last one. He uses a four-seam (92 mph), slider (to righties), change-up and curveball (to lefties) mix and his stuff moves. He’s got a 32-percent chase rate, which ranks in the top 15 percentile in baseball.
— Chris McCosky