When the Tigers drafted Spencer Turnbull in 2014, it came as little surprise to those familiar with the way Detroit likes to select their minor league talent. At 6’3, Turnbull is a specimen, looking the part of the durable, mid-rotation innings eater the Tigers were expecting to get. Some saw him as another clone off the line of right-handed fireballers the Tigers apparently have dibs on, but his case may turn out to be one of the more happier examples of these players’ career paths.
Unfortunately, his hard-throwing ways came back to bite him. Turnbull suffered a shoulder impingement injury, and eventually underwent surgery. He spent most of the 2016 season out of action, but started six games with the Lakeland Flying Tigers after rehab. He finished the year in the Arizona Fall League, and racked up 20 strikeouts to 10 walks in 20 innings with the Salt River Rafters.
Turnbull throws really, really hard. His arsenal is dominated by (surprise!) a hard four-seam fastball that he can run up to 98 miles an hour. He never quite reached triple digits when I saw him in 2015, but he did show some incredible stamina, reaching back for 97 mph in the 7th inning. He sits slightly lower than that in game action, though.
He pairs that offering with a two-seam counterpart that sits at 93-94 miles per hour. He lives in the bottom part of the zone with this pitch, and it gets praise from scouts for its movement. It’s grounder-inducing weapon that features two-plane break — running in addition to featuring heavy sink. Turnbull uses this pitch more often in professional ball than he did at Alabama, where he primarily leaned heavily on his velocity to blow past hitters.
As the above graph shows, a good portion of the batted balls (62.11 percent) that come off the bats of hitters facing Turnbull end up on the ground. That is an impressive total, one that is well above average and will serve him well as he rises through the ranks. If he can keep inducing grounders — and potentially even improve his strikeout ability — his case for continuing to start is only stronger.
His second pitch that gets positive reviews is his slider. According to FanGraphs’ Eric Longenhagen, it can turn into a bit of a cutter at times. It features vicious bite that sends it spinning to his glove side, down on the feet of lefties or away from righties. Used as Turnbull’s out pitch, it has improved significantly since Turnbull was drafted in 2014. It was not projected to become an above average offering when scouts were reviewing him during his time with the Crimson Tide. However, they now see it as an above-average pitch that could get even better. Longenhagen grades it as worthy of a plus future grade.
This has been the same old song about almost every Tigers pitching prospect in recent history. Turnbull could be an excellent pitcher, but if (and only if) he can develop some command. Interestingly, this red-headed flamethrower doesn’t struggle with hitting the strike zone; instead, his problem is ineffective location of his pitches.
“Ineffective location” is a nice way of saying “he misses inside the zone.” While it is good that Turnbull can hit the strike zone with his pitches, a lack of command is almost detrimental as a lack of control. If a pitcher throws strikes but in hittable locations, he gets beat up. Turnbull will need to refine his command, or he will likely turn to a role in the bullpen. Some see his future here, where the uptick in velocity and stuff makes up for his spotty command.
Aside from his slider, Turnbull’s secondaries are starkly unimpressive.
Turnbull has a curve that he likes to throw, but he tends to use it at the wrong time and the Tigers have talked about shelving it so he can focus on developing his slider. His changeup has the chance to be a Major League average pitch in the future.
While he has the potential to make his changeup into an average one, it will never be a true weapon. He will likely spend quite a bit of his time working on perfecting his slider and improving his command, so the curve or changeup may fall to the wayside for now. If he hopes to continue starting, though, his changeup will have to become a usable pitch. If not, he will struggle to keep hitters (especially lefties) off his fastball.
Jacob’s Scouting Report
Projected Team: High-A Lakeland Flying Tigers
Turnbull has always been a bit old for his level, and his shoulder issues did nothing to help fix that. Unless the Tigers are planning on getting aggressive or Turnbull proves that he deserves a promotion to Double-A, he will spend the season in Lakeland. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though. If we are saying the same thing later this season or into 2018, however, it is.