Skubal ready to throw curve in Tigers’ plans

Detroit Tigers

TAMPA, Fla. — The start of Tarik Skubal’s first outing of the spring looked like several of his starts last season. Aaron Judge couldn’t catch him with his 96 mph fastball on the third day of Grapefruit League play, then Joey Gallo took a called third strike at 96 mph to end the inning.

Then came a curveball, literally. After Skubal set up Giancarlo Stanton with three high fastballs at 94-95 mph for a 1-2 count to begin the second inning, he dropped a 78 mph curveball around the same spot for a called third strike.

A four-pitch walk, a single and a flyout later, Skubal went back to the big breaking ball to strand runners at second and third. This time, José Peraza chased the curve out of the zone and into the dirt, ending Skubal’s outing with strikeouts to four of his eight batters.

With so much focus on Skubal changing speeds to get hitters off of timing his fastball, the left-hander says the curveball is a point of emphasis for him. Arguably, it’s as important as the changeup the Tigers have wanted him to hone.

“That’s something that, after last season going into this season, I really wanted to start doing more, start throwing more curveballs,” Skubal said after Sunday’s outing in the Tigers’ 8-7 win over the Yankees. “It’s a really good pitch for me to change pace.

“My slider’s pretty firm. My fastball’s firm. If I can just change a little bit of pace and eyesight, especially since I pitch pretty vertically with fastballs at the top of the zone, if I can get a curveball off that, that’s the reasoning.”

That Skubal has a better idea of how his velocities and breaking balls play off each other, and knows the value of changing hitters’ eye levels, is a sign of his evolution as a pitcher and his unwillingness to be satisfied with last year’s kudos. No longer competing for a job, he’s working to get better.

“He knows he’s in our rotation,” manager A.J. Hinch said. “We hope he takes advantage of the first couple starts.”

Skubal set a Tigers rookie record last year with 164 strikeouts over 149 1/3 innings, but he also allowed 35 home runs. Twenty-seven of them came off his fastballs. With a relatively low spin rate — 29th percentile among Major League hurlers last year — there wasn’t much sneaky about his heater.

The slider was Skubal’s breaking pitch of choice for much of last season, comprising 22.8 percent of his total pitches. By contrast, he used his curveball less than seven percent of the time despite similar numbers, including a .214 expected batting average and a 31-percent swing-and-miss rate. By run value, it was his second-most valuable pitch last year behind his fastball.

“My curveball feels good,” Skubal said. “I just have to hammer that out in bullpens and get a little bit better feel for it, and I’ll be fine.”

Hinch likes the idea, but mainly if Skubal can throw the curveball for strikes, which allows him to steal an edge in a count.

“Over the course of time, if he can land it for a strike, it’ll make it very difficult for hitters,” Hinch said. “It’ll open up a lot of different areas for his fastball, and guys would not ambush him so much. It adds a new dimension to him.”

Seven of Skubal’s 35 home runs allowed came on the first pitch of an at-bat. Eight others came on 1-1 pitches, a count in which opponents hit .449 (22-for-49) with 15 extra-base hits. A change of speed for a strike here and there could help him not only reduce damage, but also help him get into strikeout situations efficiently.

Skubal has three starts left in this abbreviated Spring Training to continue to work. He says he’s stretched out, and could have faced another batter or two in the third inning before hitting his pitch count.

“Physically, I feel good. I’m built up to go three [innings],” Skubal said.

How he takes advantage of those innings could be big, both for him and the Tigers’ rotation in general. With Michael Pineda now signed and in camp, the Tigers are back to a majority-righty rotation. Skubal and Opening Day starter Eduardo Rodriguez are the southpaws, with right-hander Casey Mize in between them in the rotation order.

Even after offseason upgrades like Rodriguez, general manager Al Avila said the progress of Detroit’s young talent will determine a lot about where the Tigers finish in the standings. Skubal’s work is a sign of progress, even if it’s a curve.

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