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Tigers vs. Twins Preview: Spencer Turnbull set for first career start on Wednesday

Turnbull’s relief appearance last week only upped the excitement for his first career start.

MLB: Detroit Tigers-Media Day Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Normally, when a pitcher makes his MLB debut out of the bullpen, it dulls the excitement for his first career start. That isn’t the case for Spencer Turnbull, who impressed onlookers with a 96 mile-per-hour fastball with natural cutting action in a relief appearance last Friday. Turnbull blew a heater past Cleveland’s Yan Gomes for his first career strikeout, and also left Francisco Lindor in the dust on a 3-1 pitch later in the inning.

Turnbull’s debut was long overdue, if not for a history of frustrating shoulder issues. The 26-year-old righthander was drafted out of Alabama in the second round of the 2014 draft, and was lauded for his ability to maintain velocity deep into starts for the Crimson Tide. Turnbull looked solid in his first pro season, notching 11 wins with a 3.01 ERA and solid strikeout rate at Single-A West Michigan. The injuries struck after that, however; he was limited to just 44 13 innings in 2016 due to shoulder impingement. He also missed time in both 2017 and 2018 for a similar issue, but was able to log 119 13 innings in the minors this year.

What has everyone excited, however, is the 96 mph fastball. As mentioned, it has natural cutting action*, which helps him generate a lot of weak contact and ground balls. He has maintained very high ground ball rates in the minor leagues, along with insanely low home run rates. There will be a few more dingers to come at the major league level — his command isn’t the best either, so walks could also be problematic — but a weapon like that fastball is a nice starting point for a young pitcher.

*Don’t call it a cutter, though, lest jajabojangles tries to cut you.

Minnesota Twins (70-81) at Detroit Tigers (61-90)

Time/Place: 1:10 p.m., Comerica Park
SB Nation site: Twinkie Town
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: LHP Gabriel Moya (3-1, 4.73 ERA) vs. RHP Spencer Turnbull (4-7, 4.47 ERA in Double-A)

Game 152 Pitching Matchup

Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Moya 32.1 20.9 8.6 4.48 0.2
Turnbull (AA) 98.2 24.9 9.5 3.16 -

Moya will serve as the Twins’ opener again on Wednesday after throwing a scoreless first inning on Monday. We won’t waste too much digital ink on him since he won’t be around for very long, but here is the quick-and-dirty of what he offers, via our friends at FanGraphs.

He’s now 23-year-old big-league bullpen inventory in Triple-A, and while it isn’t loud stuff, there’s enough here to play for a while in a middle-relief role in the big leagues. Moya sits 90-91 and touches 93 mph but makes it work by operating up in the zone with a rising fastball to set up his above-average changeup and curveball that he tends to throw down in the zone for a tunneling boost. His command is average and needs to be that or better to make this fastball approach work, which is why he threw under 50% heaters last season.

Key matchup: Spencer Turnbull vs. a third pitch

Turnbull featured four different pitches in his brief MLB debut last week, but there are concerns about everything after that mid-90s fastball. His mid-80s slider is his best secondary pitch, one that FanGraphs projected as a potential plus pitch back in 2016. We didn’t see much of it on Friday, but it will be his go-to off-speed pitch on Wednesday. He also features a changeup, but that pitch lags behind the other two. While it may not matter much today, especially as Ron Gardenhire might only look for a few innings out of Turnbull, it will be the key to him sticking in the rotation long-term.

Prediction

Turnbull goes five innings and the Tigers offense picks him up for his first career win.

Gameday reading