For a rebuild to succeed, a major league franchises needs to draft well, to make intelligent signings, and to get lucky along the way. Whether the Detroit Tigers have drafted well remains to be seen, and whether they have made intelligent signings is definitely open to debate. One thing is for sure, however: they appear to have gotten lucky with the breakout of Tarik Skubal.
After one full season in the Tigers’ minor league system, Skubal has shot up prospect rankings across the internet. The 23-year-old hurler is Baseball Prospectus’s #76 prospect, FanGraph’s #53 prospect, MLB Pipeline’s #46 prospect, and Baseball America’s #34 prospect in all of baseball. Not bad for a guy who was unranked in our top 30 organizational prospects in 2019.
Tarik Skubal has joined Casey Mize and Matt Manning to form the best trio of pitching prospects in any minor league farm system across baseball. If he can build a little on his outstanding 2019 campaign, the left-hander may yet prove the best of the bunch.
Skubal was selected with the first selection in the ninth round of the 2018 June amateur draft out of Seattle University, going above their slot value and giving him $350,000 to sign. You know how Mize was drafted with the first selection in the first round that year? It was kind of like that, except Skubal was selected 254 picks later with the 255th overall pick. Skubal is 6’3 and weighs in at 215 pounds. Here is what we had to say about Skubal on draft day two years ago:
The lefty was dominant in a short post-draft stint and then came out in 2019 on fire and sustained it all year long. Skubal racked up 179 strikeouts between High-A Lakeland and Double-A Erie in 2019, and struck out 48.2 percent of hitters in his 42.1-inning stint with SeaWolves. He did walk 10.6 percent of hitters with Erie, but these peripherals were still good for a 1.26 FIP and 1.27 xFIP across those nine starts.
So, why did Skubal fall so far in the draft? The answer lies in his collegiate experience. Skubal hails from the relatively small town of Kingman, Arizona, far from youth baseball’s hotbeds. He was a good high school pitcher, but went unnoticed, ultimately receiving only one scholarship offer from a Division I school. That school was a Seattle University, a small private college in Washington that was just beginning to build up their baseball program. Skubal’s backstory was well detailed in a recent article by Cody Stavenhagen, writing for The Athletic.
Skubal became Seattle University’s ace during his freshman season in 2015, posting a 3.24 ERA thanks in part to a stellar fastball. He started off hot in 2016, as well, and was beginning to garner a lot of notoriety until Tommy John surgery derailed the remainder of his college career. By the time 2018 rolled around, Skubal was healthy again, but still working to recapture his pre-surgery form.
In their draft day scouting report on Skubal, Baseball America wrote that Skubal “struggled to throw strikes” during his redshirt junior season, walking 55 batters and hitting another six in just 73 innings. He was walking over 25 percent of hitters. That said, he was still striking out around 12 batters per inning. No wonder Detroit took a flier on the young lefty with a bit of prodding from our old friend Scott Boras.
Tarik Skubal’s top pitch is his fastball. The heater is universally graded as a plus-pitch, but some outlets, including FanGraphs, grade it even higher. Skubal’s fastball tops out around 98 miles per hour while cruising in the 93-95 mph range. The pitch is largely responsible for Skubal’s 18.1 percent swinging-strike rate, which topped all of the minor leagues in 2019 (minimum 120 innings).
Skubal works with a high leg kick and a powerful lower half to generate a lot of leverage down the mound. The stride is closed, and Skubal gets some deception by throwing back across his body with fantastic armspeed. He has some tilt as he enters his motion and gets back to a high arm slot that gives him excellent riding action on his fastball and good downward plane on everything he throws. It’s a bit of a complicated motion, but his athleticism ties it all together well and he gets that deception without sacrificing armspeed, extension, or command.
Skubal also possesses a trio of average or better secondary pitches. His 84-to-86 mph slider works down and in on right-handed hitters and has caused him to post more impressive results against right-handed hitters (.180/.259/.304) than he did against left-handed hitters (.233/.277/.310) in 2019. The pitch needs more consistency, but is generally considered to show above-average to plus depending on whose scouting report you read.
His offspeed offering is a circle change thrown from 81-to-84 mph. The pitch is graded as a future average or better offering across most outlets as well, though it needs more consistency on top of the plus movement. Still, it has the separation in velocity to eventually be a weapon and already plays up because the fastball is so explosive. If he gets more comfortable with it this year hitters are really going to be in trouble.
Finally, Skubal spins a solid curveball between 80-to-84 miles per hour. Most outlets consider the curveball to have above average potential, though FanGraphs grades it as currently being slightly below average. Skubal was able to use it as a third out pitch in addition to his fastball and slider in his dominant stretch at Double-A Erie, but he is still tinkering with the action on the pitch (likely because, as MLB Pipeline wrote, the curve “bleeds together with his slider”). If he can refine it a bit, the curveball has a chance to be really good playing it against his fastball out of that arm slot.
While Skubal doesn’t yet have a true second plus pitch entering 2020, it is an encouraging sign that he boasts three secondary pitches that each seem to benefit from his motion. FanGraphs’ profile on Skubal writes that he “benefit[s] from the funky angle created by [his] cross-bodied, high-slot delivery,” and that his fastball swinging strike rate (15 percent) is lower than the 18.1 percent swinging strike rate across all of his pitches. The combination of Skubal’s lethal fastball, mechanics, and the potential for three average or better secondary pitches have caused Skubal to break out from unknown to one of the top pitching prospects in baseball.
The other important factor is the pace of Skubal’s development. From the work in progress the Tigers drafted in 2018, the young southpaw has improved by leaps and bounds. All three secondary pitches have improved to a degree already after just one full season. His command has also been fantastic at times, though as discussed below, more consistency is required. Still the pace of his improvements lend credence to the idea that he’s going to continue to improve.
Let’s get the minor issues out of the way. As you may have inferred from his repertoire, Skubal would benefit from refining his curveball and his changeup. While he was notching strikeouts with the curveball in 2019, the fastball and the slider are the two polished products in his arsenal to date.
Secondly, Tarik Skubal still possesses average-to-below-average command. He did walk 10.6 percent of hitters in his nine starts at Erie, though it should be said that he’d posted excellent walk rates to that point. It also has to be said that the command grade is more a reflection on his secondaries than his fastball. Skubal spots the fastball quite well in stretches and has some feel for changing speeds as well. Still the very same mechanics that cause Skubal to be deceptive and rack up swinging strikes represent a challenge in tuning his command to major league average quality.
The third and biggest issue with Tarik Skubal’s profile is his over-reliance on the fastball. Skubal throws his fastball around 70 percent of the time. It’s an excellent fastball, but over the course of the last decade, only two pitchers have consistently gotten by throwing a fastball 70 percent or more of the time: Lance Lynn and Bartolo Colon. Only one qualified major league starting pitcher threw his fastball 70 percent of the time or more in 2019: Lance Lynn, at 71.4 percent. While this very much could work out in the Tigers’ favor — Lance Lynn did, after all, post an absurd 6.8 fWAR last season — only eight qualified major league pitchers throw their fastball 60 percent of the time, and thirty-three qualified pitchers throw it 50 percent of the time.
Lance Lynn has demonstrated that this approach to pitching can work in Major League Baseball even without Bartolo Colon’s pristine command (Lynn has an 8.8 percent career walk rate). Still it’s unlikely that Skubal follows suit, and it remains to be seen how his breaking balls will play if better hitters can force him to mix them in more often. The fastball is a fantastic weapon for him, but the secondaries still have to improve for him to hit the lofty projections he’s drawing these days.
Most outlets project Skubal as having a number-two or number-three starter ceiling, though FanGraphs notes that the risk on Skubal is significantly higher than it is on Matt Manning or Casey Mize. At the same time, Skubal was drafted 255th overall, while Mize and Manning were drafted #1 and #9 overall, respectively.
Projected Team: Double-A Erie Seawolves
Okay, okay, slow down. I know what you’re thinking. “Tarik Skubal struck out 17.43 batters per nine innings at Erie last year! Why are you wasting his time?”
Now, to be fair, there is a good argument that he should be in the Triple-A Toledo rotation to begin 2020, and that argument has played out in Twitter threads and article comment sections over the past couple months. He has proven himself to be as ready as anybody in the farm system other than perhaps Casey Mize and Matt Manning to move up.
However, Skubal just reached Erie and hasn’t even notched his tenth start at the Double-A level yet. There is currently a crunch developing in the Mud Hens rotation, and as a result, the team will be in no rush with anyone unless injuries up the chain force their hand. The Tigers will send Skubal back to Double-A to begin the season, but if he picks up where he left off last year, it won’t be a long stay.