Chicago — The home run totals are bothersome to Tarik Skubal, certainly. They are motivating for him as he heads into the offseason.
But they won’t define his first full season in the big leagues, nor should they.
“I’m extremely confident in my stuff going into the offseason,” Skubal said following his final outing of 2021 on Thursday in Minneapolis, a start where he gave up three home runs in 3⅓ innings. “I’m confident in my abilities. I was healthy all year long and I take pride in throwing every fifth day for an entire season.
“I’m very confident in myself and my stuff going into the offseason to where I know where I need to learn and develop to get better going into next year.”
He set a new rookie strikeout mark with 164 against just 47 walks in 149⅓ innings. He started slowly, even served a brief stint in the bullpen, but then from the end of May on maintained a 3.67 ERA and a .231 opponent batting average over 20 starts.
“He just has a better understanding of himself as a pitcher,” manager AJ Hinch said. “If you look at his last few starts compared to his first few, he’s a different pitcher from a tempo standpoint, from a confidence standpoint. He’s just grown as you would expect out of a guy in the first full season in the big leagues.”
There is that one big number on his stat line, though, that will draw scrutiny — from the fans, media and even from within the Tigers’ pitching department. Skubal allowed 35 home runs, second most in the American League. Twenty-two of them (and a .611 slugging percentage) came off his primary weapon — the high-velocity four-seam fastball.
“He knows how good his fastball is and he’s also learning that you can’t just center-cut a fastball at this level and get away with it,” Hinch said. “He’s gotten hit pretty routinely on the long ball with the four-seamer.
“There’s a lot to work on, but there’s also a great foundation to be really good and be a stable part of our rotation.”
Skubal’s average velocity on the fastball was 94 mph this season, which ranked in the upper-30 percentile in baseball, and there were games when it sat closer to 96 mph. He readily admits, though, that he too often left the pitch in the heart of the plate.
“My fastball is a fly-ball pitch just based on the metrics of the pitch itself,” he said. “I throw hard and when guys swing hard and hit a ball that’s coming in hard, that ball goes farther. But it more has to do with pitch execution.
“If the pitches aren’t center-cut, if I get them to go where I want them to go — up and in or to a quadrant of the plate — as opposed to the middle of the plate, I don’t think all that damage will be done on those pitches.”
Case in point, the three-run homer Josh Donaldson hit off him in the third inning Thursday. Skubal had thrown him a nasty 95-mph fastball that clipped the inside corner to even the count at 2-2. Seeing the pitch lock Donaldson up, he went back to it on the next pitch. He threw it firmer, 96 mph, but left it just a tick up and more over the plate and Donaldson crushed it.
“I was trying to emulate that same pitch because of that reaction,” Skubal said. “I wanted to elevate it more than I did and it came back over the plate. There were two outs and two strikes and I’m close to getting out of the inning with a zero.
“I worked really hard to get that zero and then, home run, three runs on the board and it completely changed the outing from my perspective.”
Skubal said he planned to dive into the data to see what other factors might be contributing to the excessive home run yield. Things like the counts in which he’s giving up the homers and the sequencing.
“I would like to look into the counts where damage is being done,” he said. “Are they hitters’ counts where fastballs are generally being thrown?”
Truth is, he’s given up the majority of his home runs early in counts — 17 on 0-1 counts, 11 on 1-0 counts. He’s only given up eight when the batter was ahead in the count.
“When you throw enough strikes, you are going to give up some hits,” Hinch said. “He’s a big, physical guy who throws a lot of fastballs. Some of that leads to being a little home run-prone. We have to look at all the pitches he gave up home runs on and see if it’s execution or delivery or sequencing.
“And we have a whole offseason to do that.”
Tigers at White Sox
► First pitch: 7:10 p.m. Saturday, Guaranteed Rate Field, Chicago
► TV/radio: BSD/97.1
► RHP Matt Manning (4-7, 6.16), Tigers: Tough way to end a rookie season. This will be the third time Manning has had to grapple with the fourth most potent offense in the American League in 13 days. Three straight starts against the White Sox. He’s given up nine runs in 8⅓ innings in the previous two, though he could’ve helped his cause immensely by throwing strikes. He walked eight in those innings.
► RHP Lucas Giolito (11-9, 3.58), White Sox: After a shaky start, he’s back to being nasty. The Sox are 6-2 in his last eight starts and he’s posted a 2.42 ERA while holding hitters to a .200/.257/.339 slash line. His slider and change-up are doing the heavy lifting — both holding hitters under .200, but with ridiculous whiff rates (35.8% with the slider, 39.6% with the change-up).