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BYB player previews: Tarik Skubal looks to build on a strong 2021 season

If Skubal can do a better job mixing in his secondary pitches to right-handers, he’s going to have a big year.

MLB: Detroit Tigers at Pittsburgh Pirates Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Throughout his time in the Detroit Tigers organization, Tarik Skubal has cruised along in Casey Mize’s wake, as the former first overall pick blazed the trail to the major leagues. In 2020, Skubal was called up at the same time as Mize, and the two went through their rookie struggles together. Last year, it was Mize who broke out with a strong first full season. Still, as usual, Skubal wasn’t too far behind and in 2022 he’s got a good chance to take the next step.

Skubal’s 4.34 ERA last year was better than league average, and with a little stronger campaign this season he should reach solid mid-rotation starter status. However, the underlying fundamentals lead to a 5.09 FIP, mainly due to a propensity for giving up home runs. The league average home run rate for AL starters was 1.38 per nine innings. Skubal was at 2.11 per nine in 2021. To avoid regression and continue to improve, that’s the basic problem the big lefty will need to solve this year.

Tarik Skubal 2020-2021

Season IP ERA FIP K% BB% HR/9 fWAR
Season IP ERA FIP K% BB% HR/9 fWAR
2020 32.0 5.63 5.75 27.6 8.2 2.53 -0.1
2021 149.1 4.34 5.09 25.9 7.4 2.11 0.7

There is plenty to like in those numbers, however.

Skubal’s strikeout percentage was nearly four points better than the AL average for starting pitchers last year. His walk rate was a hair less than league average. Those are good signs for him going forward. However, we can point to another long-time Tigers lefty, Matthew Boyd, for a case study of a pitcher who was often very solid in terms of strikeouts and walks, but could never consistently find a way to manage the hard contact more effectively.

In terms of stuff and deception, Skubal still has a lot going for him. He averaged 94.4 mph with his fourseam fastball last season compared to a league average of 93 mph for AL starters. His high leg kick, high arm slot, and crossfire delivery combine to make the ball a bit tricky to pick up out of his hand and time. However, despite getting a good amount of whiffs in 2021, that mark declined from his 2020 whiff rate on the pitch, and Skubal lost quite a bit of movement along the way as well.

An obvious culprit was a major decline in spin rate, from an average of 2411 rpms in 2020, to just 2191 rpms in 2021. More crucial perhaps was a decline in active spin, from 99 percent in 2020, a near perfectly spin efficient fourseamer, to 94 percent active spin in 2021 according to Statcast. The result was a loss of movement, with the fourseamer dropping an inch more than the year prior, and losing nearly three inches of horizontal movement. Possibly the introduction of more sinkers could have bled into that Statcast data, but either way, the prospect who torched the minor leagues by blowing everyone away at the top of the zone with an extremely fastball heavy profile was no longer in evidence.

A loss of movement wasn’t the only culprit where the fastball was concerned. Skubal may just throw too many of them. In 2021, 58.9 percent of his pitches thrown were fourseam fastballs or sinkers. He also can’t groove so many over the heart of the plate either.

Statcast Heatmap 2021 Skubal Fourseam
Baseball Savant

How can he improve?

Improving his fastball command is clearly one part of the equation, but he’s also got to develop and trust his secondary pitches more. To that end, Skubal is working this spring on his knuckle curveball, looking to add more velocity and tilt. Last year he averaged 73.8 mph with the curve, and it had average depth and below average horizontal movement. If he can tune that pitch up and command it effectively, he’ll have another weapon to mix in to become less predictable early in counts. Stealing some first pitch strikes, and surprising hitters with it in fastball counts would probably go a long way toward keeping hitters on their toes rather than simply sitting dead red on the heater at all times.

One of the more interesting notes from his 2021 season, is that Skubal gave up home runs in even counts early in at-bats more than you’d expect, perhaps by being a bit too aggressively fastball happy trying to avoid the deep counts. Seven of his 35 home runs allowed occurred on the first pitch of an at-bat, while eight more came in 1-1 counts. When he was ahead or behind, the home runs were scarce, but in those decisive challenge pitches that determine at-bat outcomes most, Skubal took a lot of damage.

Skubal’s slider was his most used secondary last year, and it was effective. Hitters only slugged .327 against it, while it racked up plenty of whiffs for him. Against lefties, he threw the pitch more as the year went along, particularly mixing it in first pitch more effectively. That’s the kind of trend we’re looking for with the changeup against right-handers.

Perhaps the biggest key is Skubal’s changeup. 34 of those 35 home runs he allowed last year were to right-handed hitters with 22 of them coming against the fourseamer and five more against the sinker. Left-handers couldn’t touch him. Using the changeup a little more against right-handers, and in less predictable counts, could go a long way toward limiting the damage.

The changeup actually performed very well overall, but he only used it 12.1 percent of the time overall, and 14.7 percent of the time against right-handers. He racked up an enormous 50 percent whiff rate with it, and hitters only slugged a feeble .294 against. Considering that Skubal worked on a splitter during the 2020-2021 offseason, only to scrap it to return to the circle change in spring camp, the pitch performed really well. He just has to trust it more, especially in more typical fastball counts where he remains too predictable. Little else is going to help him manage contact against right-handed hitters as much as the changeup could this season.

2022 Outlook

Most of Skubal’s failings last year, in an otherwise solid full season debut, revolve around trusting his secondary pitches more often. It’s no surprise that a pitcher who made his bones off the fastball as prospect might turn to it as too much of a security blanket in his first full tour of the majors. Sometimes it’s easy to fall into the trap of giving major league hitters too much credit when you’re getting hit hard for the first time as a pro. Skubal presumably felt most comfortable with his fastball command, worrying that he might hang something soft. As it turned out, grooving all those fastballs got him rocked instead.

This season, Skubal should be a lot more comfortable in his abilities at the major league level. While tuning his stuff and command up would obviously help, much of the problem was likely a simple lack of confidence in using his full repertoire, particularly against dangerous right-handers. With a good deal more experience, and a full slate of innings under his belt, he should be much better prepared to use all his weapons and avoid predictability. If it all comes together, the upside here remains substantial and Skubal has the work ethic and mentality to make it happen. We’re expecting a pretty good season, and for the Detroit Tigers to make a real run at a postseason birth, they’ll need him to deliver.