Detroit Tigers Newsletter: Move over, Must-See J.V., here comes Tarik Terrific

Detroit Free Press

To hear Tarik Skubal tell it, he merely clocked in for a couple hours on the mound Sunday at Comerica Park

“I wasn’t trying to put too much pressure on myself to pitch really well,” Skubal said after his start against the Baltimore Orioles. “I was just trying to go out there and do my job.”

That he did, and then some: 11 strikeouts, three hits, two walks and no runs allowed over six innings, while inducing a career high 21 swings-and-misses in the Tigers’ 5-1 victory.

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Of course, those who’ve been watching the scoreboard daily know the Orioles aren’t exactly the toughest challenge, either by record (14-21) or by offense (they entered Sunday 29th in the majors in runs per game, at 3.32).

But still, their roster Sunday was structured –— as much as a team with 389 losses since the start of the 2018 season can — to counteract Skubal’s advantage as a lefty: After leadoff hitter Cedric Mullins (who tapped his fellow lefties for a not-terrible .788 OPS last season), the O’s had eight straight righties on the lineup card.

And he mowed them down, with two strikeouts in the first, three in the second, one in the third, two in the fourth, one in the fifth and two to wrap up his day in the sixth. (In case you were busy watching all the Game 7 wildness from Boston to New York to Phoenix to Calgary, you can get the full rundown on the game here.)

It got us to thinking, in that way you do during the third replay review of the afternoon, a big question: Is Skubal a Cy Young candidate? Consider:

The stuff: Those swinging strikes Sunday accounted for 30.4% of his total strikes against the Orioles and brought him up to a swinging-strike percentage of 20.8% in 2022. It’s a slight uptick from last season (20.1%), but it’s still good for 13th in the AL. (He’s well behind the frontrunners — Shane McClanahan at 27.9%, Gerrit Cole at 26.6% and Shohei Ohtani at 26.4% — but a few more outings like Sunday’s and he’ll be right there with them, thanks to …

The attack: Catcher Tucker Barnhart pointed it out after Sunday’s game, saying, “He’s just been on the attack from the first pitch of the at-bat, pretty much for the majority of the season.” And sure enough, that has resulted in 30.6% of his plate appearances getting to 0-2 counts, good for 11th in the AL (right between last year’s Cy Young winner, Robbie Ray, and 2019’s winner, Justin Verlander). Of course, strike percentages and 0-2 counts are nice, but what matters are …

The results: And it’s there that Skubal has shined. After finishing second in the AL in homers allowed (35) in 2021 — a rate of 2.109 homers per nine innings — Skubal is now allowing just 0.454 homers per nine innings, sixth-lowest in the AL. His walks per nine innings (1.815) is seventh-lowest in the AL. And his strikeouts per nine innings (10.210) is sixth-best. That combo of lots of strikeouts, few walks and even fewer homers — the three things pitchers can actually control — leaves Skubal with a 2.09 FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching, according to baseball-reference.com); that’s second in the AL behind only Toronto’s Kevin Gausman (0.84).

Yes, there’s still nearly three-quarters of the season to go — the BBWAA isn’t mailing out ballots anytime soon. But Skubal’s early work suggest he’s on his way to a strong finish once it does.

Flying high

What a difference a three-game sweep makes! From dropping four of five against the rebuilding Oakland A’s to taking all three against the, well, also-rebuilding O’s, the Tigers are on a roll. Just in time to face the mighty Tampa Bay Rays. But at least there are finally some positive signs emerging. As manager A.J. Hinch put it, “Happy flights are better than brutal, sad ones.” And the Freep’s Jeff Seidel has 10 reasons why the Tigers’ future flights might be happy, too.

Rock bottom

Though, as we said, it’s not all sunny days and 0-2 counts; the Tigers still have the worst record in the AL, at 12-23 even after the sweep. How did they get here, starting the weekend with a 9-23 record that ranks among the worst in franchise history. (Ahhh, “worst in franchise history” … brings back memories of 2019, it does.) The Freep’s Evan Petzold took a swing at explaining it here.

Speaking of “worst in franchise history,” even with Friday’s victory, the Tigers’ 10-23 start was the 10th time the franchise has failed to win at least a third of its first 33 games. We took a look back at the previous nine to see whether those teams were able to pull out of their nosedives. Click here to find out what it took for a select few to finish their seasons on a high note.

Actually, you want to know how you know the Tigers have been bad? When they start drawing comparisons to the Lions. (We’d apologize to Aidan Hutchinson for the cheap shots at the Lions, but, hey, he’s been around long enough to expect them.) The Freep’s Shawn Windsor examined whether the vibes for one franchise can affect those of the other, considering their proximity on either side of Brush Street. The Lions, he sees good things for; find out why here. (Let’s not ask any more about the Tigers.)

See our Vest, see our Vest!

One of the early bright spots for the Tigers, as we bring up every week, has been the bullpen. Though that was tested on Friday night, as Gregory Soto dug a deep hole in the ninth inning only to be lifted by an electric performance from Will Vest, who less than a year ago was sporting an ERA above six and received a polite “Thanks, but no thanks” from the Seattle Mariners as they returned the Rule 5 draft pick to the Tigers. Our Man Petzold has the scoop here on why Vest doesn’t appear to be going anywhere any time soon.

These Mize, they’re crying

Unfortunately for the Tigers, rehabbing starter Casey Mize doesn’t appear to be returning to the majors soon, either. After a rough start for Triple-A Toledo — and some postgame pain — Mize is headed back to Lakeland to revise his rehab. He’s not “shut down,” according to Hinch, but the words “slow him down” are out there. Head here to get a better idea of Mize’s timetable.

Greene light

Also in Lakeland? Superprospect Riley Greene, who has gotten the … uh, shoot, guess we gave it away with the headline there… Anyway, Greene, who fractured his foot with a foul ball during the last week of spring training, has been cleared for baseball activities. So when will he be cleared for takeoff to Detroit? You’ll have to click here for the full plan, but we hear center field at Comerica Park is particularly lovely in mid-June.

Three to watch

So Greene is on the way, someday. But there’s three Tigers already in town (or in St. Pete, whatever)…

BEAU BRIESKE: The former 27th-round pick starts again Tuesday. Our Man Seidel says the Tigers could learn a lot from him.

GREGORY SOTO: Some rocky relief appearances haven’t shaken the fireballing lefty’s confidence.

SPENCER TORKELSON: Likewise, the rookie first baseman is still slumping. But he’s not headed to Toledo … yet.

Happy birthday, Ozzie Virgil!

The first non-white player to suit up for the Tigers, Ozzie Virgil, turns 90 on Tuesday. Virgil wasn’t the first Black player to don the Old English D — that would be Larry Doby, 12 seasons after he became the first Black player in the American League. But Virgil was the first Dominican player to play in the majors, and after two seasons with the Giants, he joined the Tigers in 1958. Over parts of three seasons, he hit .228 with seven homers, 14 doubles and 36 runs scored in 131 games. But why did it take the Tigers so long to integrate? Head here to check out the Freep’s deep dive on Virgil’s debut.

Other Tigers birthdays this week: Doug Brocail (55 on Monday), Jack Morris (67 on Monday), Billy Martin (would have been 94 on Monday; died in 1989), Carlos Pena (44 on Tuesday), Joakim Soria (38 on Wednesday), Brandon Inge (45 on Thursday), David Wells (59 on Friday), Hal Newhouser (would have been 101 on Friday; died in 1998), Jacob Turner (31 on Saturday), Andrew Miller (37 on Saturday).

Mark your calendar

What’s that on the schedule? Could it be? A … blank space? Yes, the Tigers are off Thursday, their first day without a game this month since rain washed out May 3’s game vs. the Pirates and their last day off until June 6. From May 20-June 5, the Tigers will pack 18 games into 17 days. But that’s getting ahead of ourselves; first up is a three-game series in St. Petersburg, Florida, against the Tampa Bay Rays today through Wednesday in Tropicana Field, which doesn’t exactly get a ringing endorsement from most major leaguers beyond the caveat of “Well, it has a roof.” But there’s at least one Tiger with fond memories of the Trop: Alex Faedo, tonight’s starter, and a Tampa native. Click here to find out why he has good memories of the former home of the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning.

TL;DR

Just three Tigers in franchise history have put up at least three 10-strikeout games in their first 50 appearances: Skubal (who has four more appearances to reach 50), Denny McLain (four times) and … Jeff Robinson, who did it four times from July 28, 1987-May 1, 1988, and then never again.

Contact Ryan Ford at rford@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @theford.

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