Few prospects in the Tigers’ organization had as much success as Spencer Turnbull in 2018. The big right-hander finally began to live up to the hype that led him to be selected in the second round of the 2014 MLB Draft, as Turnbull posted extremely impressive peripherals across Double-A and Triple-A. This culminated in a long-awaited call-up for Turnbull and a debut in which he pitched a clean one-two-three inning against the Indians while striking out superstar shortstop Francisco Lindor.
Coming into our 2018 rankings, Turnbull still projected as a potential back end starting pitcher. Now that he has reached the major leagues, is this still true? Let’s take a look.
Spencer Turnbull was, to keep it simple, a force at the University of Alabama. The Tigers took notice and drafted him with the 63rd overall pick in the 2014 MLB Draft. While he’d only pitch 12 games in 2014 between Rookie and Low-A ball, Turnbull impressed in his first full season in 2015. He posted a 3.06 ERA, 3.10 FIP, and allowed zero home runs over 116.2 innings with the Single-A West Michigan Whitecaps. Of course, this was to be expected from an imposing pitcher with high level college experience, but Turnbull looked every bit like a future rotation piece.
His health took a turn for the worse in 2016, however, as he only pitched 30 innings at High-A. He continued to work his way through the minors in 2017, posting a successful 3.05 ERA and 3.36 FIP in 82.2 innings at High-A Lakeland while maintaining a minuscule 0.33 home runs per nine mark, and posted an encouraging 3.32 FIP despite a disheartening 6.20 ERA in his first 20.1 innings at Double-A Erie. Still numerous minor injuries, particularly in his shoulder, had Turnbull’s stock in something of a free fall.
In 2018, however, Turnbull got something of a reprieve from the injury bug—though he did miss a few weeks with shoulder trouble again—and finally emerged as a force. A force nicknamed “Red Bull,” obviously. He posted a 3.16 FIP and 0.36 home runs per nine mark for Double-A Erie over 98.2 innings, then worked 13.1 innings at Toledo in which he posted a 2.03 ERA, a 1.38 FIP, a 12.83 strikeouts per nine mark, all while allowing zero home runs in that span.
This earned him a call-up to the Tigers, where he posted 0.5 fWAR in 16.1 innings with very good peripheral numbers. Turnbull was knocked around by the Minnesota Twins in his first start, but rebounded to spin a fine start against those same Twins a week later. He allowed just 0.55 home runs per nine, and posted a 2.85 FIP, though the sample is obviously very small. His only struggle at the big league level was his unusually low 51% strand rate, resulting in a 6.06 ERA.
It’s hard to look at Spencer Turnbull’s output and tools and find anything to dislike. His 6’3, 215-pound frame is fantastic for a starting pitcher. He hides the ball a bit with a little crossfire in his delivery, and shows good extension will each of his offerings. The stuff is clearly major league caliber.
His fastball is his best pitch, consistently drawing plus grades. He averaged 94.1 mph in the majors this year and has plenty more in the tank. In fact, Turnbull may have been a little amped, pumping 97 mph heat out of the gate in multiple starts. He gets a lot of groundballs off the power sinker, and but also mixes in a fourseamer to hitters at the top of the zone with above average spin rate and a bit of cutting life. He keeps lefties honest by buzzing that one in on their hands with some frequency. The sinker remains the primary offering but it’s a pretty nasty combination when he’s locating both.
His secondary pitches aren’t eye-popping, but he’s honed a hard, cutting slider into a solid primary breaking ball. He can back that with an above average power curveball and an average changeup as well. He just isn’t as consistent with the latter two offerings. When Turnbull is dialed in, it is a fairly deep arsenal of major league caliber pitches, which is why the Tigers continue to hope he’ll have the durability to start. He’ll probably never be a true strikeout artist, at least in that role, but if it doesn’t work out, Turnbull should have enough to pitch late innings in relief as well.
There is much to love about Turnbull, especially when you consider how long it’s been since he was really on the radar as a prospect. His 0.55 home runs per nine mark in Detroit over 16.1 innings this past season was the highest mark he has posted in his career, excluding two rehab outings he made at Rookie ball in 2016. He keeps the ball on the ground, has continued to improve his command, and proved his ability to generate at least an average number of whiffs last year.
The biggest knock Fangraphs has on Turnbull’s scouting report is his command. That said, he has posted solid strikeout-to-walk ratios across all levels and, as mentioned, he is exceptional at limiting the home run ball. While his slider was a worry this time last year, he made real strides with its consistency in 2018. In fact, the only thing holding him back at this point are the looming injury concerns. Whenever Turnbull gets a long stretch of unbroken work in, he seems to improve.
Command and injury troubles tend to go hand in hand. While Turnbull wasn’t exactly surgical last year, it was notable that his command took a full leap just when his body finally allowed him to stay on the mound regularly and find his groove. If Turnbull can just stay healthy and continue to tune his fastball command, he’s could really surprise people with how well his stuff will play.
2019 Projected Team: Toledo Mud Hens / Detroit Tigers
While he only has 13.1 innings of experience at Triple-A Toledo, it’s hard to argue against Spencer Turnbull being on the Opening Day roster. 2018 was a fine rebound for the right-hander and his fastball and slider combination could play as a lethal combination in the bullpen should he not receive a spot in the starting rotation.
In a Tigers’ farm system rapidly overflowing with pitching prospects, Turnbull will have to be flexible and capitalize on his opportunities this year. Now age 26, and older than Daniel Norris and Michael Fulmer, it is time for the Tigers to start getting some value from him at the major league level. There’s really no reason to have him in the minors for any length of time if he’s throwing well. He should compete for a job in spring training, and if the Tigers choose to start him out in Toledo, expect Turnbull to be one of the first called up during the season.