Detroit Tigers’ Spencer Turnbull’s year ran the gamut: From no-hitter to Tommy John surgery

Detroit Free Press

Spencer Turnbull doesn’t have any regrets about 2021.

He learned from Detroit Tigers manager AJ Hinch and pitching coach Chris Fetter in spring training and built the confidence required to be a frontline starting pitcher. He finally improved his command and consistency, boasting a 2.88 ERA with 12 walks and 44 strikeouts. He also tossed the eighth no-hitter in franchise history, the first since Justin Verlander in 2011.

“I was having the best year of my life, and then it just got cut short,” Turnbull said Wednesday. “That’s just the way it is. I wish it didn’t happen that way. But I’m still thankful for a lot of it. Hopefully, it’s just a bump in the road and gives me time to work on things, get stronger in some areas and come back better than I’ve ever been.”

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Turnbull, 29, underwent Tommy John surgery in late July and could miss the entire 2022 season. For now, he is busy with physical therapy in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Still, Turnbull wouldn’t trade last season for anything.

“I felt like I was really pitching well,” Turnbull said. “Probably the best I’ve ever pitched. I grew up a lot and turned the corner. I was stepping into what I’ve always seen myself with the potential of being. I was starting to figure that out. Going down with an injury sucks.

“But I was able to turn that corner and accomplish some pretty cool things. It sucks, but at least I was able to do that first before (my injury) happened. Now it’s just taking my time to get back and making sure I’m healthy. And when I get back, I’ll hopefully pick up where I left off.

‘He looked at every pitch I threw’

When Turnbull showed up to spring training, he wanted to take his performance to the next level.

Thankfully, Hinch and Fetter were eager to push him.

“I’ve kind of had to feel my way in the big leagues and figure out how to pitch on my own,” Turnbull said. “I feel like (Hinch) and Fett came at the perfect time to help me figure out some of the last missing pieces. That alone helped me step it up.”

The Tigers drafted Turnbull with the No. 63 overall pick in 2014. He made his MLB debut in 2018 and pitched his first full season in 2019. That year, he lost an MLB-leading 17 games and paced the American League with 16 hit-by-pitches. In the shortened 2020 season, Turnbull threw 56⅔ innings in 11 starts and posted a 3.97 ERA with 29 walks and 51 strikeouts.

Despite improvements, Turnbull wasn’t consistent enough.

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To get even better, Turnbull and Hinch (with Fetter in the room) had a private meeting after each of his three starts in spring training.

“He looked at every pitch I threw,” Turnbull said. “He’s like, what were you thinking there? I was like, this is what I was thinking exactly. He would be like, OK, I like that idea, but what do you think about this? Or, I like that idea, but you missed. Or, hey, that was great, that was nasty, and I love your thought process.

“Just having that real-time feedback with some of those pitches, I don’t feel like I’ve ever had that before from a coach or a manager or anything in my whole lifetime. … He’s not afraid to hurt your feelings, but he’s very real. Basically like, if you work on this, you’ll be in this spot in the rotation. And he honors that.

“You have somebody that knows what it takes and can lay it out for you. It’s like, this is where we see you. If you can do this a little better, we can see you here. But if you don’t, you might end up here. He lets you know but also helps you figure that out and get better. Whatever that was really worked for me.”

[ AJ Hinch didn’t know if he’d get another chance. Tigers sure glad he’s theirs ]

Hinch is considered one of the best managers in baseball, primarily because of the way he blends analytics and his feel for the game. He captained the Houston Astros to a pair of World Series appearances, winning the championship in 2017, during his five-year tenure from 2015-19. 

In 2021, the Tigers were projected to be one of the worst teams in baseball. Hinch turned them into a winners for most of the season. The Tigers started slow, but they posted a 68-61 record after May 7 and had a 39-36 record against winning teams. For his efforts, despite a 77-85 finish, Hinch received three third-place votes for AL Manager of the Year.

His communication skills are revered.

“He really challenged me but did it in a way that was direct and specific, so I knew what was expected of me,” Turnbull said. “If you rise to that challenge, then you know what the rewards are going to be. He’s direct, no BS and none of that old-school telling you what you want to hear. I feel like AJ is very different. If he says something, he’s not BS’ing you, so you know it’s real. Basically, if you don’t get the job done, you knew what was expected of you and you didn’t do it. But if you do it, you also know what’s going to come from that.

“That winning mindset went a long way for me and challenged me to step up. Maybe people have been saying that my whole life, but what he did seemed to get through to me the most. It forced me to be better. When I was challenged, I stepped up.”

‘Coolest day of my life’

Before Turnbull could pitch in the regular season, he tested positive for COVID-19 on March 19, missed the remainder of spring training and couldn’t return to team activities until April 1. Turnbull lost 10 pounds, then had to build his stamina at the alternate training site in Toledo ahead of his April 21 return.

It was his first setback of the year.

“That might have led to some of the injury issues,” Turnbull said. “You just never know. I lost a lot of weight. Having to come back from that really quick, you do the best you can. But you spend a whole offseason getting ready, and then you lose a lot of that muscle mass or whatever it is. You get back as fast as you can and you’re ready, but the demands of the season are tough.

“I don’t know if throwing a no-hitter or what was more than my body could handle. I have no idea. But I’ve never had really any elbow issues up to that point. All of a sudden, I’m having Tommy John surgery.”

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When May 18 came around, Turnbull had made five starts.

His sixth start took him to T-Mobile Park for a match with the Seattle Mariners. It changed his life and the trajectory of his MLB career.

That’s when Turnbull became the sixth pitcher in franchise history to throw a no-hitter. He faced 29 batters, allowed two walks, struck out nine and tossed 77 of 117 pitches for strikes. He threw 24 first-pitch strikes and earned 19 swings and misses. His pair of walks — one in the fourth inning, the other in the ninth — didn’t deter him from his historic moment.

Finally, a consistent Turnbull emerged.

“That’s definitely the coolest day of my life,” Turnbull said. “Being able to say that you did that, it’s one of the things that no one can ever take away from you. It helps you walk with a little extra confidence for the rest of your life. At the same time, baseball is a game of what have you done for me lately, so I got to get healthy and get back out there. It was really cool, but at the end of the day, it doesn’t mean a lot if I can’t get back to pitching. But I know I can, so that’s what my focus is now.

Turnbull made three more starts in 2021, allowing just five runs with four walks and 13 strikeouts across 15⅔ innings. His final start was June 4 against the Chicago White Sox at Guaranteed Rate Field. After four innings and 56 pitches, Turnbull exited due to right forearm tightness.

He finished last season with a 2.88 ERA, 12 walks and 44 strikeouts over 50 innings in nine starts.

“It’s validating. It’s proof,” Turnbull said. “I’ve always felt this and thought this, but I haven’t been able to pull it off or get it together for long enough. When you’re able to do it, and you do it in a way that’s been preached, you’re like, I can buy into this and trust this. It actually works.”

He’s not ruling out 2022

On July 29, Turnbull had Tommy John surgery in Birmingham, Alabama.

Dr. Jeffrey Kugas operated the procedure to repair the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow. The typical timetable for a full recovery is 12-18 months.

“I’m definitely just looking forward now,” Turnbull said. “Doesn’t do any good to dwell on the past. I don’t think I regret anything because I didn’t really have an option. I made the best choices that I had. Now it’s just doing everything I can to get better and get healthy.”

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For about two months, Turnbull tried to avoid Tommy John surgery.

“I guess there’s like that 1% chance of rehabbing and coming back,” Turnbull said. “Not many guys are able to come back the same. Maybe I miss next year, but maybe I’ll come back in a year. Who knows. At least I’ll be able to be my best self by ’23. I felt like it was the right time to do it.

“It weighed on me a ton. I wrestled with it for a month and a half, two months almost. It wasn’t getting better. I already tried rehabbing. It was one of those things where I had to pull the trigger, and I’d rather do it now than wait another few months or however long and still end up needing it. And that would have pushed me even further into the future.

Although Turnbull hopes to return late in 2022, there’s a good chance he isn’t back until 2023.

To make up for Turnbull’s absence, the Tigers signed left-hander Eduardo Rodriguez — who finished sixth in 2019 Cy Young voting — to a five-year, $77 million contract. They also traded for catcher Tucker Barnhart — a two-time Gold Glove winner — and picked up his $7.5 million team option for 2022.

Turnbull remains a key part of the Tigers’ future, which is why the organization will pay roughly $1.8 million this year for a pitcher who might not step on the big-league mound. A starting rotation of Rodriguez, Turnbull, Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal and Matt Manning in 2023 could be among the best in baseball.

For that to happen, the Tigers need him to come back the same way he left.

“Hopefully, I’ll be able to get back sooner rather than later and contribute and get back to doing my job,” Turnbull said. “But it’s cool to see and hopefully there’s more of that: continuing to build a winning team, pushing for the playoffs and pushing for even further than that.

“I think they’re going about it the right way and putting the pieces together. I think it’s going to be a really exciting next few years in the future.”

Contact Evan Petzold at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzoldRead more on the Detroit Tigers and sign up for our Tigers newsletter.

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