Just when the Detroit Tigers were rolling through the best teams in baseball and looking like they’d finish the 2021 season on a serious roll, matchups with their mediocre AL Central foes has brought them back to Earth. After taking two series against the Tampa Bay Rays, one against the Milwaukee Brewers, and one against the Chicago White Sox, the Tigers have been downed by Kansas City and now the Minnesota Twins. On Thursday night, they’ll look to avoid the sweep in Minneapolis.
Tarik Skubal has face the Twins twice this season. The first outing, in Detroit back on May 7 went well, as the lefty struck out eight and allowed two earned runs over five innings of work. Both runs came on solo home runs. The second time Skubal took on the Twins, it was in Minnesota back on July 8, and that one did not go so well. Skubal allowed five runs, though only two earned in that one, again allowing two home runs. That last bit has been the problem all year despite an overall good rookie season.
Skubal is punching out hitters left and right, and he’s been an aggressive strike thrower, keeping his walks in check. The problem is the long ball. Ever since he showed up in spring camp with his fastball spin rate down substantially, the heater has rocketed between two poles, sometimes an extremely effective swing and miss fastball, but too often easy to barrel up when Skubal misses over the heart of the plate. There have been a lot of strikeouts, few walks, and plenty of hard contact along the way, and the 25-year-old southpaw is still searching for the recipe to keep the fastball off the barrel.
Against the Twins that’s a difficult task, particularly in Target Field.
Skubal’s high leg kick and extreme crossfire delivery, coupled with velocity and extension, make the heater difficult to pick up and time. But when hitters guess correctly, inconsistent command has too often seen fastballs grooved on the way in, and mashed on their way out. Skubal has dealt with that by mixing in some sinkers and using his slider a little more, but the vulnerability remains. Byron Buxton, Mitch Garver, and Jorge Polanco each have a home run against him, though only Garver has really had success overall.
In his last outing, Skubal was effective and efficient, throwing four innings of one-hit ball against the Royals last week. His job in this one is to keep the fastball out of the heart of the plate, and give his teammates every opportunity to build an early lead. That is something the offense has struggled with of late.
Detroit Tigers (75-83) at Minnesota Twins (71-87)
Time/Place: 7:40 p.m. EDT, Target Field
SB Nation Site: Twinkie Town
Pitching Matchup: LHP Tarik Skubal (8-12, 4.13 ERA) vs. RHP Joe Ryan (2-1, 2.45 ERA)
Game 159 Pitching Matchup
Right-handed rookie Joe Ryan was part of the deal that sent Nelson Cruz to the Tampa Bay Rays back in July. A bit of a soft-tosser, averaging just over 91 mph with his fastball, Ryan has very pedestrian spin rates, and doesn’t really fit the Rays profile, yet he’s still been very successful through four starts despite throwing 66.7 percent fourseam fastballs and living up in the zone most of the time.
Ryan is a distinct fly ball pitcher, with 56 percent of batted balls in the air. That’s an extreme percentage of fly balls, yet Ryan has kept the ball in the park very well to date. It’s difficult to square with pedestrian movement profiles on his stuff, average extension to home plate, and mediocre velocity. Maybe he’s simply gotten away with his misses thus far, and his extremely low walk rate may speak to good command helping him to avoid mistakes over the middle, but it’s still hard to fathom how he’s getting away with this. Perhaps it’s the small sample size. Perhaps he has a bit of Yusmeiro Petit-type invisiball action happening, where hitters struggle to pick up the ball until it’s released. Or perhaps he’s simply due to get rocked by a Tigers’ offense that has failed to do much damage of late.
Key Matchup: Tigers vs. their first time through the order woes
In several recent games, the Tigers’ lineup has done nothing for seven or eight innings, and then suddenly come alive with the game on the line. While it’s good to see the fight in them, that just won’t do if you’re trying to win. What the Tigers need, is a lead. Skubal has a pretty good shot to hold the Twins down for three or four innings, but it may not count for much if his teammates can’t give the pitching staff some run support to work with. When the Tigers have the lead, they’ve been pretty adept at keeping the pressure on. Without it, we’ve seen a lot of poor ABs—and admittedly some bad luck on balls in play—through the middle innings, and a late scramble to pull it together the final time through the order. Let’s hope they can get out to a faster start tonight.
Salvaging this one would be a minimal consolation prize, but at least they’d enter their final series of the year against the White Sox coming off a win.