The first surprise of the 2019 season for the Detroit Tigers came during the home opener, when manager Ron Gardenhire turned to 26-year-old Spencer Turnbull to make the start against the Kansas City Royals. The righthander was coming off his first 16 major league innings the September prior, but impressed enough during spring training to not only earn a rotation spot, but earn the Opening Day honors.
The 2020 season will be a big year for Turnbull for a couple reasons. Though last season was his first full run in the majors, he is not exactly young for a pitcher. The Tigers have a ton of exciting starting pitching prospects in the minors that could be ready as soon as this summer, and no spot in their future rotation is guaranteed. Detroit, of course, wants Turnbull to succeed and will give him every chance to do so this year, but a lackluster season could put his future opportunities in jeopardy.
A tale of two halves
There was one big story line for Turnbull last season and it comes as a split right now the middle. In over 89 first half innings, he posted a 3.31 ERA; in just under 60 innings in the second half of the season, his ERA ballooned to 6.60 ERA. The obvious reason for this decline would be fatigue, pitching his first full season in Detroit. He spent some time on the injured list due to his shoulder — something he has dealt with in the past — and this should not be a huge surprise. The 152 innings he threw last season (including a rehab start in the minors) are the most he has thrown as a professional, topping the 135 2⁄3 frames he threw the year prior.
However, digging deeper into Turnbull’s numbers shows that the two halves might have been more similar than it might seem. By FIP, his halves were almost identical (3.94 vs. 4.07), and his strikeout rate actually went up a couple percentage points in the second half. His home run numbers did go up a bit, but not enough to justify almost doubling his ERA.
The biggest change for Turnbull was probably in his batting average on balls in play (BABIP), which shot up from .306 in the first half to .374 after the All-Star break. This could seem like some bad luck, but there is a little more to it. During the second half of the year, Turnbull’s hard hit rate was over 50 percent, which, of course, is going to lead to a ton of hits.
Can this be fixed? Pitchers at this stage are unlikely to make huge jumps forward, but there is some room for improvement in his command and perhaps his secondary offerings. More likely, though, is that an offseason of rest and 30 starts worth of experience will help him hit the ground running in 2020.
The true Turnbull
Arguably the Tigers breakout player of 2019, eyes will be on Turnbull this spring. While most expect him to recover from his second half slump, he is unlikely to carry a 3.30 ERA throughout the whole year. If he can split the difference — say a 4.50 ERA and 1.33 WHIP with similar strikeout numbers — that should be enough to earn him a spot going forward, even if that means a place in the back of the rotation.
If Turnbull never finds his first half form, the Tigers still have plenty of other options in the organization and should be fine in the long run. But if he does make himself serviceable, it will help get them through this season and keeps some options open for him going forward. Turnbull was a fun story last season; this year it will be about seeing what he can put together over an entire year.