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Breakout prospect Tarik Skubal earns his first shot at the majors

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The Tigers are going to have two of the best left-handed heaters in the game on display.

Detroit Tigers v Houston Astros Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

Thanks to consistent dominance in the minor leagues, southpaw Tarik Skubal has forced fans of the Detroit Tigers to learn his name since being drafted. His stellar play saw him climb from a relatively unknown ninth-round draft pick into a mainstay in top 100 lists during his first full minor league campaign in 2019. His meteoric rise was the final addition to the three-headed pitching prospect monster waiting in the wings of the Tigers farm system.

Among a flurry of moves made on Monday, the Tigers called up Skubal. His ascent has been well documented, built on one of the best fastballs in the minors, and an ability to make batters whiff. As it turns out, it didn’t take too long after his breakout year for the Tigers to decide he was ready for The Show. He’ll take the mound Tuesday night in Chicago for his major league debut against the White Sox.

Background

Thanks to a Tommy John surgery followed by an inconsistent college career at Seattle University as he made up for lost time, Skubal fell to the Tigers in the 9th round of the 2018 MLB Draft. He quickly made a splash in his draft year throwing 22.1 innings and striking out 33 batters across three different levels, the highest being Class-A West Michigan. That certainly raised some eyes, though his brief appearances and reliever-ish profile still undersold his full potential.

It was 2019 that really solidified Skubal as a breakout star. He started in Lakeland where he put together one dominant performance after another, ultimately ending with him posting a 10.87 K/9 and 2.13 BB/9 with a 2.56 FIP over 80.1 innings. That earned him a call up to Double-A Erie where he was just as dominant over the span of nine starts, posting a K/9 of 17.43. To put this in perspective, between Lakeland and Erie, he struck out 48.2 percent of the batters he faced.

Skubal has proved an absolute steal as a ninth rounder, and he’s certainly earned this call-up. However, it’s worth noting that the 2020 season started off rocky for him. He was placed on the COVID list, and it was reportedly a pretty gnarly case of it.

It wasn’t until July 21 that Skubal officially joined the club. That is only of note because he might not be as stretched out as Casey Mize for example, per Tigers GM Al Avila.

He may not be able to stretch out innings wise, but the team wouldn’t call him up if he wasn’t performing well enough to showcase the talents he displayed in 2019.

Strengths

Skubal’s big fastball is a known commodity. It consistently receives plus grades around the board. He’ll sit between 93-95 MPH with it, but he’s topped out at 98 MPH and has plenty of deception and life on it. Fangraphs puts a 65 grade on the pitch. Frankly, even that might be underselling it a bit. Per Fangraphs:

He has a dominant fastball, equal parts velocity, ride, and tough-to-square angle. So unhittable is Skubal’s heater that he’s struck out 37% of hitters during his pro career (48% over the final few weeks over Double-A play last year) while throwing the pitch roughly 70% of the time

Also in Skubal’s arsenal are two distinct breaking balls. His slider will be in the mid-80’s and and the curveball in the low-80’s. Which one is better depends on who you ask. His curveball has late break to it, His low three-quarter arm slot gives the pitch nice two-plane break, but modest depth can sometimes make it appear just a slower version of his slider.

As for the slider, it can appear more as a cutter at times. It has a little late horizontal break and drop. Although it’s worth noting that Skubal appeared on a panel during PitchCon and talked about his work in changing and maximizing the shape of the pitch. These two pitches have a tendency to bleed together at times.

Skubal has addressed this by reshaping said curveball last offseason. In place of the slurve that too often looked like a slower version of his slider, he developed a true 12-6 traditional curve that breaks straight down and should pair much better with the steady dose of high fourseam fastballs he uses to attack hitters. We haven’t really gotten to see much of the curveball this year, so it will be something to watch for as he begins his major league career.

Rounding out his arsenal is a changeup that’s seen a lot of improvement. It does have nice movement, but perhaps the best part about it is Skubal’s ability to maintain arm speed. That helps create deception with the pitch. That pitch will be paramount in his success against right-handed batters. If he can spot it, the pitch should flourish played against a pretty dominant fastball.

His delivery features a high leg kick and a strong lower body that helps him to generate velocity. It’s slightly complex, but his athleticism holds it together into a repeatable delivery with good extension. Between a slight tilt and his ability to keep his front side closed, Skubal is able to hide the ball very well throughout his motion. He also appears to have excellent spin efficiency on his heater, producing excellent ride through the hitting zone.

All of this is what helps him get whiffs. His 18.1 percent swinging strike rate was the highest in the minors last season.

Weaknesses

Outside of his fastball, Skubal doesn’t have a true plus offering just yet. This can be deceiving because minor league hitters have struggled so desperately against the fastball. Against his secondaries, even mediocre versions have often drawn ugly swings as hitters can’t adjust. Major league hitters will have much more success.

His breaking stuff can flash plus at times, but not consistently. If he can refine one of his secondaries, he won’t have to rely on his fastball as much as he has in the past, which will benefit him at the major league level. Especially because his fastball plays at the top of the zone. When the best hitters in the world are sitting on that, it can turn into bad news for Skubal. His COVID symptoms and ramp up time add another potential wrinkle to the reliance on the fastball. It becomes a less valuable pitch if his velocity is down. Sketchy reports from Toledo have been very positive but we’ll have to see for ourselves over the coming weeks.

There are examples of pitchers who can be successful with a fastball-dominant approach, but it isn’t easy to do. Skubal’s secondaries need to flourish so that he doesn’t have to live and die with the heater, but that is something he will have to show in games. It stands to reason that his whiff rate will fall against MLB hitters, so he needs to be able to keep hitters off balance a little more often to continue to generate whiffs and weak contact

One measurement for this is BABIP, to see what happened without the whiffs. It’s not a perfect barometer, but Double A hitters posted a .343 BABIP over Skubal’s 42.1 innings at the level. That stat has some luck involved in it, and comes with the caveat that he forced a lot of batters to go to the opposite field. Per Fangraphs, the percentage breakdown of batted balls (pulled/center/oppo) was 31.9/21.7/46.4.

Another knock on Skubal is his command, which generally is graded below average. That showed a bit more in Erie where he walked 10.6 percent of hitters. In general, he commands his fastball better than his secondaries, but the command grade represents his arsenal as a whole. There are hints that he’s made strides in his ability to spot his whole repertoire over the past year, and our brief looks in camp seemed to hint toward that as well. We’ll need to see it in games to be sure.

Projection

It’s not hard to see a ceiling of a frontline starter for Skubal if it all comes together. As it stands now, his big fastball, mediocre command and developing secondaries make it more realistic the he settles into a four/five starter role. That assessment will change quickly if he shows improved his command and has really sharpened up his secondary weapons.

There is also the possibility that the Tigers could deploy him as more as a super reliever, as the fastball velocity and movement, deception, and angle all make it real tough to handle until a hitter has multiple looks against him. But in terms of command and depth of arsenal, he’s still much more a complete package than the Tigers other high velocity lefty, Gregory Soto, was during his minor league career.

At the end of the day, the Tigers took Skubal in the 9th round. His ascension is nothing short of spectacular. He’s undoubtedly earned this call-up and has the stuff to stick in the Detroit rotation. Only time will tell if that’s the ideal spot for him as the Tigers attempt to return to relevance.