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Tigers vs. Royals Preview: Spencer Turnbull aims for series win over Kansas City

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Turnbull is quickly establishing himself as a legitimate mid-rotation starter for the Tigers.

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Minnesota Twins v Detroit Tigers Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

It wasn’t that long ago that we did not know what the Tigers would ever get out of Spencer Turnbull. He struggled with shoulder issues down in the minors in 2016, throwing just 44 13 innings, and was briefly sidelined again in 2017 for about a month. His cameo in Double-A Erie later that season didn’t go well either. He also missed a month of action last season, and allowed a 4.99 ERA in six starts with Erie after his return.

What he has done since then has completely turned everything around. Turnbull made a pair of starts for Triple-A Toledo last summer, fanning 19 batters in 13 13 innings. He was then called up to the major leagues, where he looked much better than his 6.06 ERA in four appearances indicated — he posted a nice strikeout-to-walk ratio, and limited opponents to a .658 OPS in 69 plate appearances. And we all know what he has done so far this season.

Were this 12-start stretch positioned differently, we might be exercising more caution in what to expect in the future. However, since Turnbull seems to have taken a major step forward even compared to where he was last fall, we seem to be taking him for granted already. That may be okay — Turnbull has nasty raw stuff, an arsenal that can lock hitters up even when he isn’t having his best night, a la his win over Boston on April 23.

But will his numbers stay this good as teams get another look at him? Sunday’s game offers an opponent the first chance of a do-over in 2019, as the Royals get their second look at the young righthander.

Detroit Tigers (14-16) at Kansas City Royals (12-22)

Time/Place: 1:10 p.m., Comerica Park
SB Nation site: Royals Review
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, fuboTV, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: RHP Brad Keller (2-3, 4.07 ERA) vs. RHP Spencer Turnbull (2-2, 2.53 ERA)

Game 31 Pitching Matchup

Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Keller 42.0 16.7 12.8 4.55 0.4
Turnbull 32.0 22.6 9.5 3.68 0.6

Last season, Brad Keller made his living as a ground ball specialist who induced a lot of double plays and limited home runs. Opponents batted .252 and managed just under a hit per inning against him, but he maintained an 8.6 percent walk rate and erased 18 runners via the double play ball, fifth-most in the American League. He had the lowest isolated power against (ISO) among AL starters, as opponents slugged just .335 against him.

This has not been the case in 2019. Keller has already allowed 16 extra-base hits this season, more than half of the total he coughed up in all of 2018 (28). He is nearly halfway to last year’s walk total as well, with a league-leading 23 free passes issued in just 42 innings. He is even being victimized by a lower ground ball rate. Opponents are only batting .211 against him — a figure that will rise as that .242 BABIP corrects itself — but have a much higher OPS thanks to the high walk rate and a few extra hit batters.

Long story short, Keller’s command is not where it needs to be. He doesn’t have the raw stuff to get away with missing his spots so frequently, and the extra wildness hasn’t come with any more swing and miss than he had last year. He has been effective at times — he managed a 2.31 ERA across two starts in April where he walked nine batters in 11 23 innings — but more often than not, those walks have come back to bite him.

Here’s hoping they do again on Sunday.

Key matchup: Spencer Turnbull vs. run support

Good news: Turnbull is no longer dead last in the American League in run support!

Bad news: He’s second-to-last at 2.3 runs per game. Get it together, offense.

Prediction

Turnbull makes it three wins in a row with another solid performance.