With the ‘equalizer’ in his pocket, Tigers’ Tarik Skubal is reaching peak performance

Detroit News

Toronto — The Tigers didn’t need validation from an outside source, of course, but it’s never a bad thing when the opposing manager gives a hat-tip to one of your young foundation pieces.

Angels manager Joe Maddon came away impressed after watching rookie lefty Tarik Skubal dispatch 17 of 19 hitters after allowing a two-run homer to Justin Upton in the first inning Wednesday night at Comerica Park.

“That young man who pitched tonight is outstanding,” he told reporters. “And with good health, you’re going to watch him at the top of the leaderboards in the future. His stuff is really that good.”

That game marked the one-year anniversary to the day that Skubal made his big-league debut against the White Sox at Guaranteed Rate Field. He needed 52 pitches to get through two innings that night and gave up four runs and seven hits.

“If you look at me one year ago to where I am at now, I feel like a completely different pitcher,” he said. “I think I’m trending in the right direction.”

That is indisputable. The Upton home run is the only damage against him over his last three starts — two runs in 17.2 innings with 17 strikeouts and just two walks.

In 24 games (22 starts), he’s punched out 134, third most by a Tigers’ rookie, and walked only 41.

“I’ve just learned a ton about myself, how my stuff plays,” he said. “I’m also learning the hitters around the league and when to throw certain pitches, what guys struggle with and what they hit.”

His four-seam and two-seam fastballs, which he throws to different planes of the plate, average 94 mph with movement. Over the last three starts, he’s hit 97 and 98 mph. That’s his calling card.

Opponents are hitting just .202 off his slider, which is elite.

But the pitch that’s unlocked him has been a traditional change-up. Opponents are hitting .170 and slugging .295 against it, swinging and missing on 47.5% of them.

And he hasn’t truly mastered it yet.

“I’ve said the whole year, the change-up is the equalizer pitch for me,” Skubal said before the Tigers played the Blue Jays Friday. “If you look at every outing I’ve had, the ones with better results and the ones I go deeper into the game are the ones where I had my change-up when I needed it.”

Like Wednesday night. He threw 11 of them, got seven swings, four misses and two put in play for soft-contact outs.

“I just love how he’s pitching right now,” manager AJ Hinch said. “He’s not just a thrower. He’s got great stuff. He can light up the radar gun. He can spin it and mix his pitches. And he competes. That is a big part of his arsenal.

“If he learns the front and back part with the change-up, watch out. That’s a big step forward for him.”

By “front to back,” Hinch is talking about Skubal’s ability to use the change-up to keep hitters off-balance and off his fastball. The old-school term is putting hitters in a rocking chair — late on fastballs and out front of off-speed pitches.

“Back and front with guys who hunt the fastball, or hunt pitches that are straight,” Hinch said. “When you can disguise that with various speeds, all the better. It’s a game of timing and the best way to disrupt timing is front to back.”

Skubal throws his change-up and fastball out of the same arm slot, the same tunnel. The hitter sees that it’s not spinning, so it looks like a fastball. The fastball comes in at 93 to 97 mph, the change-up comes in at 82 to 84.

“I face a lot of right-handed hitters, too, and the lefties I face are really good lefties who are everyday players (like the Angels Shohei Ohtani),” Skubal said. “Something to expand the zone front to back, but make them respect the width of the plate, too, not just the inner half.

“They have to respect the outer half of the plate and maybe a little bit off the plate, too, when I can expand in certain counts.”

When we’re adding up all the big moves the Tigers made this 2021 season, make sure to include the day back in April, after a scuffling Skubal was sent to the bullpen for a couple of weeks, when pitching coach Chris Fetter convinced him to scrap the split-change and go back to his traditional change-up.

Skubal spent a few days last winter at Drive Line Baseball outside of Seattle learning to throw the split-change. He loved it at first, until he realized the wrist and hand action it took to throw the pitch was adversely impacting his fastball.

Once he went back to the traditional change-up, his season took off.

Asked if he thought Skubal had turned a corner, Hinch said, “I don’t see a corner that he needed to turn. He’s just continuing to add to his development. He’s learned a ton and he’s built off a couple of really good starts.”

And, even though he’s quadrupled his workload from last year, he’s showing no signs of slowing down.

“I always put a ton of value in taking care of my body from Day One of the season but also in the way you attack the off-season,” Skubal said. “I feel great. I don’t feel like it’s the dog days of August yet.

“That can always change, but I am excited to take the ball again.”

Case stated

Hinch said he spoke with Michael Hill, Major League Baseball’s vice president of on-field operations, on Friday about the events that led to his ejection Thursday.

“We went through different scenarios,” Hinch said. “I understand their explanation and I’m fine moving forward with it. I didn’t think it was handled correctly. I had a complaint and they heard it out. I’m not expecting to hear anything else about it.

“The league will deal with anything internally and we move forward.”

Hinch was upset that the umpiring crew didn’t follow the process of giving the manager just 20 seconds to ask for video review of a disputed play. They allowed Maddon to discuss it for over three minutes before asking for a review.

“It was unfortunate how it all went down,” Hinch said. “We’ll all be better for it.”

Around the horn

Outfielder Derek Hill (ribs) took early batting practice and shagged balls in the outfield before the game. He is expected to be activated off the injured list Saturday. The Tigers will have to send a player out. Two players who might be vulnerable are outfielder Victor Reyes (who has options) and Renato Nunez (who does not).

… Hinch said Miguel Cabrera is scheduled to play all three games in Toronto, regardless of whether or not he hits home run No. 500.

chris.mccosky@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @cmccosky

On deck: Blue Jays

►First pitch: 3:07 p.m.

►TV/Radio: BSD, 97.1

Scouting report

►RHP Wily Peralta (3-2, 3.70), Tigers: Where would the Tigers’ rotation be right now without his 11 starts, providing a stable, veteran presence in the absence of veterans Matthew Boyd, Spencer Turnbull and Jose Urena? His feel for the split-change comes and goes, but he has it, it’s deadly. Hitters are 5 for 53 against it with 20 strikeouts.

L►HP Hyun Jin Ryu (11-6, 3.72), Blue Jays: A true craftsman, he dots the edges of the strike zone with six different pitches, all of them thrown under 90 mph. His main tools are the four-seam, change-up, cutter and curve, and he gets a 30% chase rate and a 22% swing-and-miss rate, and a lot of soft contact (88.6 mph average exit velocity).

— Chris McCosky

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