The Tigers aren’t in postseason contention with a 65-74 record, but they want to prepare their young pitchers for October by getting them acclimated to a 162-game season. Reaching the playoffs could happen in 2022, considering this year’s progress and potential offseason moves from owner Christopher Ilitch and general manager Al Avila.
To get there, Mize and Skubal — the prized arms of the future — will face strict restrictions in September 2021 to protect their short- and long-term health. Beginning with their first outings this month, the Tigers won’t allow Mize and Skubal to pitch more than three innings per start for the remainder of the season.
“We’re trying to build a playoff team as soon as possible,” manager AJ Hinch said Monday. “And this is part of it.”
Both 24-year-old pitchers should finish the season somewhere around 150 innings.
Mize has reached 138⅓ innings across 26 starts, following his three-inning outing in Sunday’s 4-1 win against the Cincinnati Reds at Great American Ball Park. He retired all nine batters he faced, recorded two strikeouts and tossed 27 of 34 pitches for strikes.
“They’ve been very transparent,” Mize said Sunday. “They’ve planned this out, and the goal all along is to get to the finish line. We’re at a point now where we got to do this to make that happen. I’m just wasting everybody’s time if I’m sitting there fighting for (more innings). It’s not easy for any of us to do, but it’s the plan. It’s what we have to execute to get me to the finish line instead of shutting me down. So I’m OK with it.”
Although Mize was perfect, Hinch didn’t stray from the plan.
“That’s why we make decisions long before the emotions of the game come in,” Hinch said. “I’ve made decisions for these guys and for us earlier in starts, taking them out in the fifth inning instead of letting them go six, or taking them out after six instead of going seven. That’s so I have something left in tank to let them finish the season.”
Along with pitching 138⅓ innings, Mize has logged a 3.51 ERA, 39 walks and 106 strikeouts. The right-hander delivered his best results through five starts in May, tossing up a 1.74 ERA, 10 walks and 27 strikeouts over 31 innings.
Before this season, Mize maxed out at 114⅔ innings as a junior for Auburn in 2018 before the Tigers drafted him No. 1 overall. (Skubal’s previous career-high — 122⅔ innings — came in 2019 between High-A Lakeland and Double-A Erie in the minor leagues.)
Mize also had his workload slashed for three starts in early July, throwing three innings July 2, four innings July 7 and four innings July 19.
Despite a three-inning cap, Mize’s mindset doesn’t change.
“It’s basically just get outs and limit runs,” Mize said. “At the end of the day, we’re trying to win the game. Even if I’m only in there for three innings or whatever, I still need to put up zeros and get our team off to a good start to the game. All my focus is on getting nine outs without letting anybody score and passing it off to the bullpen.”
Skubal has posted 136 innings over 27 games (25 starts), following his three innings in Monday’s 6-3 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park. He gave up a two-run home run in a 28-pitch first frame before perfect innings in the second and third to conclude his outing.
The lefty struck out four batters and fired 36 of 50 pitches for strikes. Through 25 starts, Skubal has a 6.48 ERA in the first inning. Allowing 31 home runs adds up to the fourth-most in MLB and third-most in the American League.
“I need to be better in the first regardless,” Skubal said Monday. “It doesn’t matter that it’s three innings, six innings or seven innings. The first inning is where the damage is done, kind of all year long. Maybe it’s a little bit of a mentality thing or not trying to find the feel and just attacking guys in the first inning. There’s a bunch of things I can take away from this game.”
Skubal carries a 4.30 ERA, 45 walks and 154 strikeouts this season. He passed Spencer Turnbull — who posted 146 strikeouts in 2019 — for the organization’s all-time strikeouts record among rookies in his Aug. 31 start against the Oakland Athletics.
But Skubal now faces innings limits for the first time since April, when the Tigers shipped him to the bullpen for a pair of appearances April 21 (three innings) and April 25 (2⅔ innings) before his return to the starting rotation.
This time, Skubal believes he can use the restrictions to evolve into a more efficient pitcher.
“You’re always trying to be efficient,” Skubal said. “The goal is to get 12 pitches in an inning or less. That’s something I haven’t been great at all year. I think that’s something I can definitely work in these three-inning outings.”
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.