Lakeland, Fla. — Tarik Skubal hadn’t booked his flight yet, but he was ready.
After negotiations between the players and owners lasted throughout the day Sunday, the Tigers’ 25-year-old left-hander did what he always does on the last day of the offseason, he spent one last night with his family – which has been expanded since last offseason – and started getting his bags backed to head to Lakeland.
Then Monday came.
“I was really optimistic toward the end there,” Skubal said from his home in Arizona Thursday night, winding down from his workout and getting ready to blast some golf balls at a local driving range. “When they met all day long, I was like, yes, we’re actually going to get a deal done.
“But the next day when I saw the words, ‘best and final offer,’ that wasn’t really aligning with what the players association wants. When I saw that I was like, ‘We’re not getting a deal.’”
Here’s the thing about Skubal, though, he adapts quickly. We saw that last year when, in his first full season, he refashioned his arsenal after a rocky first month, scrapping a split-fingered change-up for a traditional one and ultimately solidified himself at the top of Tigers’ rotation.
He ended up making 29 starts and setting a Tigers’ rookie strikeout record (164).
So, when the union rejected the owners best and final offer, Skubal adapted. He went back to his five-day workout and throwing regimen, training with Justin Wakefield at the APEX Performance facility in Mesa, throwing sides at Arizona State University on Tuesdays and throwing live batting practice and simulated innings at a local high school every Friday.
“I try to treat it as a five-day routine, working Monday through Friday and taking the weekends off,” Skubal said. “It’s been working out really well to prepare for a season – whenever that start date is going to be.”
He’s been throwing two-inning simulated games the last two weeks, facing hitters, even sitting down while another pitcher throws between innings.
“I built up to that two-inning mark because I assumed the deal was going to get done and we were going to get out there and start playing games pretty quickly,” he said. “I didn’t want to be blindsided by any of that. I didn’t want to feel I wasn’t prepared or not be physically ready to do that.
“Now I’m just going stay right around there (that two-inning mark) and hope a deal gets done sooner than later.”
The delayed start to the spring notwithstanding, Skubal has had a most productive offseason – especially off the field. He and his fiancé Jessica were married on Nov. 19 at the picturesque Venue at the Grove in Phoenix.
“It was beautiful,” he said.
His fellow rotation mates Casey Mize and Matt Manning were there. Daniel Norris and Alex Faedo were there. Glorious day.
The rest of his offseason was committed to getting better, to taking his game from good to great. Because for all the strikeouts and quality starts (eight) and dominant outings, he took some lumps.
His barrel percentage – balls hit with an exit velocity of 95 mph or better – was 13.9%, in the bottom 1 percentile in baseball, according to Baseball Savant. The average exit velocity on all balls put in play against him was 90.5 mph.
He gave up the third most home runs in baseball (35).
There was work to do.
Points of emphasis
“For me, the goal I have every year is to be healthy and take care of my body so I am able to pitch,” Skubal said. “That’s very important to me. When you are hurt, you can’t work on your craft.”
He and Wakefield, who has been his trainer since 2016 when he helped Skubal rehab from Tommy John surgery, have been getting after it four and five times a week.
As for the pitching side of things, Skubal has focused on reshaping his slider and curveball and further perfecting the change-up, which was his x-factor last season. When he had it going – hitters hit .176 against it with a 50% swing and miss rate – he generally dominated.
Brace yourself for a short clinic on pitching:
►About his slider, which he threw firmly at 86-87 mph last year, holding hitters to a .216 average but getting only 29% swings and misses.
“I want to get my slider to move more horizontally, even if that means losing a little bit of velocity,” he said. “I’ve been throwing to (Orioles catcher) Jacob Nottingham and he’s been giving me really good feedback. At one point he said the slider was getting too horizontal. He told me he liked the other one better.”
So, he’s trying to find that middle ground.
►About the curveball, which he used just 7% of the time last year:
“I want to add a couple of miles per hour to it,” Skubal said. “I feel like, talking to the hitters I’m facing, it’s coming together pretty nicely…I want to use it more. It’s a change-of-pace for me, big-time. But I don’t want it to be 72 mph like it was at times last year. That was just a product of not trusting the grip.
“For me, it’s more about throwing it and picking my spots and treating it like a fastball – throw it like a fastball, don’t slow down anything.”
►About his two-seam fastball, which he throws just as hard as his four-seam fastball (94-95 mph), with ride. There’s no sink to it. It was a pitch he used a lot against right-handed hitters, pairing it with his slider.
“If I can showcase something enough to where I get off the barrel, maybe work that pitch into lefties and get soft contact to the pull side,” he said. “I did that a bunch late last season and just about everyone was a ground ball to second base. Just quick, one pitch, ground ball and I’m on to the next guy.”
But it’s most effective when he locates it up and in and down and in to right-handed hitters.
“It’s a kind of ball-to-strike pitch that can set up the slider down and in, as well,” Skubal said. “They have to respect that pitch just off the plate that comes back on. Then I can expand my slider to the back foot even more.
“You’re always trying to make the plate look as wide, make the plate look bigger, to where hitters have to cover more areas of the zone.”
When all this comes together, he has a firm four-seam fastball riding up in the zone, a horizontal breaking slider than he can pair off the two-seam against right-handers, and the slider, curve and change-up he can pair off the four-seam to lefties.
Useful. Especially when he’s typically ahead in the count. He threw 64% first-pitch strikes last season and had a 65% strike rate overall. He had a 26% strikeout rate and a 7% walk rate.
Keep it in the yard
But, just so you know, the 35 homers he allowed is not acceptable to him. All but one were hit by right-handed hitters.
“Home runs are going to happen based on the style of how I pitch,” Skubal said. “I throw a lot of fastballs up in the zone, I have a lot of ride on the fastball and I throw hard. So if they hit it, it’s going to go a long way. But I think a lot of those homers came on behind-in-the-count fastballs.”
He gave up 22 homers with his four-seamer and 27 overall when he was either even or behind in the count.
“When I talked to (pitching coach Chris) Fetter after the season, we talked about getting more comfortable throwing 2-1 curves, 2-1 sliders, 2-1 change-ups,” Skubal said. “I got too fastball happy just because I wasn’t sure I could throw those other pitches in the zone.
“I am working on being comfortable enough to throw a higher percentage of off-speed pitches when I’m behind in the count, just comfortable enough to where I can throw it in there and set up that next pitch. If I can flip an off-speed pitch and get a strike on 2-1 or 3-1, then I can go back to my bread-and-butter, which is the fastball.”
Skubal admits this latest break in negotiations has been frustrating, just from the fact that he feels like he’s made such great progress this offseason. He’s anxious to see how it plays against big-league hitters. He’s all revved up with no place to go.
“Frustrating is the perfect word,” he said. “I want to play. I think every player wants to be playing right now. It’s frustrating that we can’t come to a deal and be out there right now. But I am excited, too. I feel like I’m very prepared for spring training.
“Unfortunately, that has to be put on pause for a little bit. I’m still optimistic that on any day a deal could potentially get done. I just keep waiting to hear: ‘Breaking news – players association the Major League Baseball have reached an agreement.’”