Skub-pendous: Tigers lefty enjoying impressive season

Detroit Tigers

There is no one-size-fits-all rule for prospect development in Major League Baseball. While some players are immediately ready for the bright lights, others take time to make a significant impact.

And if left-hander Tarik Skubal’s strong start to his second full season in Detroit is any indication, he appears to be putting it all together.

More than two months into the 2022 season, Skubal has seized a significant starting rotation role for the Tigers. As of June 30, he had a 5-6 record with a 3.75 ERA and 89 strikeouts in 84 innings over his first 15 starts, including a 1.17 WHIP.

He also got off to a scorching start. According to Elias Sports Bureau, Skubal joined Justin Verlander (2.15 ERA in 2012) and David Wells (1.83 ERA in 1993) as the only Tigers pitchers to boast a 2.15 ERA or lower through their first 10 starts in the last 40 years.

“The stuff that he has, it’s unbelievable,” reliever Michael Fulmer said on May 23. “It’s some of the best stuff I’ve ever got to personally experience. I think he’s going to have a long, successful career.”

Selected in the ninth round (255th overall) out of Seattle University in the 2018 MLB Amateur Draft, Skubal still is only 25 years old and has shown steady growth since his big league debut in August 2018.

“I think he understands to be a complete pitcher, he’s got to be more than a fastball pitcher,” Tigers manager A.J. Hinch said on May 15. “Slider, changeup, even a slow curveball — he’s got a wider array of weapons that he’s understanding how to use, and he’s growing.”

According to Baseball Savant, Skubal has thrown his four-seam fastball just 27.9 percent of the time this season, a significant drop from his reliance on the pitch (42.8 percent) in 2021.

The Hayward, Calif., native has also leaned on his secondary pitches more than last year. Through June 30, he opted for his slider at a rate of 30.7 percent, followed by his sinker (19.3 percent), changeup (14.5 percent) and curveball (7.6 percent). That command has induced a groundball rate of 48.3 percent.

“I think pitch execution, like where those balls are, I think that’s why that’s happening,” Skubal said in an interview on Bally Sports Detroit on May 20. “[It happens] when I’m able to get my slider in and slider backdoor, and able to get my fastball in there too.”

Catcher Tucker Barnhart, who has caught all of Skubal’s starts this year, said the southpaw’s style of pitching is a big reason why he’s been so successful.

“He’s been on the attack from the first pitch of the at-bat, pretty much for the majority of the season,” the 31-year-old backstop said on May 15. “The ability to control his fastball in locations that are very, very effective for him, as well as mixing the slider, changeup and curveball every once in a while to protect those other pitches that are so effective for him.”

As Skubal continues to master his craft, he’s able to increasingly bait opposing hitters. This season, batters are chasing 30.8 percent of Skubal’s pitches out of the strike zone — a 6.9-percent increase from 2021.

“He’s not perfect,” Hinch said. “He doesn’t make perfect pitches. He doesn’t have to.”

One of the highlights for Skubal this year came on May 15, when he struck out 11 batters over six scoreless innings in Detroit’s 5-1 win over the visiting Baltimore Orioles.

It was the left-hander’s third career start with double-digit strikeouts, and first since August 25, 2021.

“I feel like I did a good job of getting to two strikes and then being able to execute a pitch with two strikes,” Skubal said after the May 15 victory. “Strikeouts come, but I’m not really going to be focused on them. It’s good to get to two strikes and then get guys out in those counts, too.”

It also was the third time a Tigers pitcher reached the 100-pitch mark in a start this season, after left-hander Eduardo Rodriguez did it on April 26 and again on May 13.

“He wants to go deeper into games,” Hinch said before the game on May 15. “He jabs at me every now and then about not going 100 pitches.”

Skubal reached the 100-pitch mark again 11 days later, throwing 102 pitches in Detroit’s 4-3 walk-off win at Comerica Park over the Cleveland Guardians.

Although Cleveland snapped Skubal’s scoreless innings streak at 21 — the longest by any MLB starter this season as of May 26 — it was an outing Hinch described as “dominant.”

“It was very impressive with how he went about it,” Hinch said after the May 26 win. “He’s fighting to stay in after 100 pitches. He knew he had a lot of responsibility tonight.”

As the Tigers continue a busy July schedule, Skubal plans to lean on his approach to help him become more consistent.

“I think that’s the mindset you gotta have, getting better every single day,” the left-hander said in interview on MLB Network’s “MLB Central” on June 2. “Good or bad outing, regardless, there’s something to learn from. That’s just something I’ve kind of done ever since I got in pro ball, where you make so many more starts than you do in college, so you’re just trying to learn how to get better in between those five days.”

If Skubal continues to perform at this level, it’s only a matter of time before he’s rewarded.

“He belongs in the All-Star Game, to begin with,” MLB Network broadcaster Jon Paul Morosi said on May 26. “And if he keeps this up, he belongs in the Cy Young [Award] conversation. That’s how good Skubal has been this season.”

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