Detroit Tigers pitcher Spencer Turnbull finally healthy, but performance needs to improve

Detroit Free Press

Right-hander Spencer Turnbull, who hasn’t pitched for the Detroit Tigers since May 6, has completed three starts as part of his rehab assignment. He doesn’t have neck discomfort anymore, but his performance needs to improve.

The 30-year-old will make his fourth rehab start Wednesday with Triple-A Toledo and could need a fifth rehab start before the organization decides whether to activate him to the Tigers or option him to the Mud Hens.

“In my second start, I found my really good slider,” Turnbull said. “It was wipeout, the best it’s been in three years. In Toledo, I didn’t have it. I’m still trying to figure it out. I’m getting back in the grind and trying to get my velocity up.”

Turnbull, under team control through the 2024 season, has a 4.32 ERA with one walk and seven strikeouts over 8⅓ innings in three total minor-league starts for High-A West Michigan (two starts) and Triple-A Toledo (one start).

He started Friday with Triple-A Toledo, allowing two runs on three hits and one walk with two strikeouts across 3⅓ innings. His fastball averaged 92.1 mph and maxed out at 94.4 mph.

“The shoulder is definitely more sore this week than it was last week,” Turnbull said. “I threw 56 pitches. It was a lot more stressful. Every inning was stressful. West Michigan was like cruise control, and Toledo was a little more stressful.”

For his 56 pitches (33 strikes), Turnbull used 28 four-seam fastballs (50%), nine sinkers (16%), eight curveballs (14%), seven sliders (13%) and four changeups (7%). He generated five whiffs with three four-seamers and two curveballs, as well as 12 called strikes with eight four-seamers, two sinkers, one curveball and one slider.

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Right now, he is focused on improving his command.

“I threw the kitchen sink at them,” Turnbull said, “but I didn’t know where it was going.”

Turnbull used his slider 24.5% of the time in the 2021 campaign — the last time he was at full health — before undergoing Tommy John surgery to repair the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow.

He missed the entire 2022 season while rehabbing from elbow surgery.

“Secondary pitches in the (strike) zone are going to be really important,” Tigers manager A.J. Hinch said. “When you bounce up to Triple-A, the secondary command becomes a little bit more important. He hasn’t really had that quite yet. The increase in velocity has been solid, and holding his stuff has been very good. The breaking ball, changeup command is going to be important for him in his next start.”

The Tigers could send Turnbull to the Mud Hens after the completion of his rehab assignment. After all, the Tigers optioned Turnbull to Triple-A Toledo — due to a 7.26 ERA with 15 walks and 24 strikeouts over 31 innings in seven starts — before he disclosed the neck injury to the organization.

The neck injury reversed the demotion and sent him to the injured list.

“At the Triple-A level or the major-league level, it’s very key to have your whole arsenal,” Hinch said. “He’ll be back, hopefully, to pitching what a normal starting pitcher workload would be in a given game. Those are two parallel paths of getting him back to being a normal starter.”

Turnbull has a 12-29 record with a 4.55 ERA in 61 games (60 starts) in his MLB career.

While we’re talking about rehab games

Right-handed reliever Will Vest (right lower leg strain) has allowed four runs on two hits and five walks with six strikeouts across three innings in his rehab assignment with Triple-A Toledo, spanning three games.

He needs at least one more rehab outing.

“He’s physically doing very well,” Hinch said. “He feels good with no restrictions. The velocity (94.7 mph four-seam fastball) is good. And now, we’re going to work on the execution being a little bit better.”

Vest walked four batters — throwing 16 of 34 pitches for strikes — in Sunday’s appearance with the Mud Hens. The 28-year-old had a 2.73 ERA with nine walks and 32 strikeouts over 29⅔ innings in 27 appearances with the Tigers before the injury.

“We’re going to give him another outing in Triple-A in a couple of days with a straight focus on finding the strike zone,” Hinch said. “When we do activate him, and I’m looking forward to doing it, we need him to be sharp.”

The struggles of McKinstry

Since May 30, utility player Zach McKinstry — the primary leadoff hitter against right-handed pitchers — has a .188 batting average with three home runs, eight walks and 45 strikeouts in 57 games.

His on-base percentage is .220 over that stretch.

“Most guys, I would say 90%, swing their way out of this stuff,” Hinch said. “That can be a great benefit when you get hits, but it’s not a benefit when you don’t. It just exaggerates the problem. … Seeing more pitches is only going to help you when it comes to reestablishing your numbers.”

The Tigers shifted McKinstry, a left-handed hitter, to the No. 7 spot in the batting order (behind Miguel Cabrera) for Monday’s series opener against the Minnesota Twins, facing right-hander Pablo López.

The 28-year-old posted a 15.6% walk rate and a .412 on-base percentage in his first 45 games of the season, but in the 57 games since then, he owns a 4.0% walk rate and a .220 on-base percentage.

Hinch said the Tigers plan to “stick with him” as he tries to adjust.

McKinstry, whom the Tigers acquired from the Chicago Cubs in a trade before Opening Day, has played for three teams in his four-year MLB career. He doesn’t have any minor-league options remaining.

“He’s played this much in the minors, but he hasn’t played as much in the big leagues,” Hinch said. “I think the stresses that come with the big leagues is different, and the pressure you can put on yourself is different.

“We took him out of the leadoff spot to alleviate a little bit of that first-inning stress and give him a different look, and hopefully, we get him back to being on-base driven, giving good at-bats and putting the ball in play in more line-drive mode.”

Javier Báez update

Shortstop Javier Báez joined the Tigers at Comerica Park before Monday’s game against the Twins and is expected to be available off the bench as a pinch-hitter, just like he was Saturday and Sunday.

The Tigers will likely place Báez on the bereavement list before Tuesday’s game. He is scheduled to travel to Puerto Rico to be with his family following the recent death of his grandfather.

“We’re still just waiting for his family to make arrangements,” Hinch said. “Most likely tomorrow, if not sooner. We’ll put him on the bereavement list once we have arrangements set and know when he can travel and when the services are.

“He’s emotionally drafted from all of this. He has a very, very close relationship with him and his family member, so we’re going to respect that and use him accordingly. He’s available, doing his work and preparing.”

When a player is on the bereavement list, he must miss a minimum of three games and can miss up to seven games. The Tigers will promote a player from Triple-A Toledo to take Báez’s place on the roster.

Contact Evan Petzold at or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.

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