As shocking as the first five weeks of the 2022 season have been for the Detroit Tigers, it’s been downright peculiar how closely the team has mirrored the 2021 edition. Already, the Tigers have seen four of their top six starting pitching options go down to injury. They’ve closely tracked the 2021 win-loss record to this point by posting a solid enough mark through 15 games and then going completely in the tank for the next 15. And once again under pitching coach Chris Fetter, a really banged-up pitching staff has managed to hold their own, while the offense has really scuffled.
Perhaps the main point of stability on the entire roster has been 25-year-old Tarik Skubal. Since he was drafted in the ninth round four years ago, the young lefty has overachieved. Now he has seized the baton as the best of the Tigers' young pitching staff. What’s really impressive is how much he’s had to adapt along the way. And as we’re seeing so far this year, Skubal continues to evolve and improve.
Obviously, since Casey Mize’s injured elbow sprain didn’t respond well to his first rehab start and Matt Manning is still a start away from returning from shoulder inflammation, only Skubal has really been able to show his stuff. However, the numbers really tell the tale here. The left-hander’s improved marks in walks allowed and home run prevention have carried him to an excellent start.
Though 33 2⁄3 innings of work over six starts this season, Skubal holds a 2.42 FIP with a 2.94 ERA. He ranks seventh in baseball in both FIP and fWAR.
Tarik Skubal 2020-2022
In a few game previews this season we’ve already noted Skubal’s change in approach. He’s throwing more sliders and fewer four-seam fastballs this season. He’s using his sinker (21.4%) a lot more as a percentage of fastballs thrown, balancing it more equally against his four-seam fastball (28.3%), whereas in 2021 the four-seamer accounted for 42.8 percent of pitches thrown. Mixing in the slider first pitch, in particular, has helped him be more unpredictable and he’s increased both his chase rates and his swinging strike rates a little bit as a result.
While we should expect more walks, and more home runs against him as the weather warms up, but there are some good signs that he’s not going to revert back into the extremely home run prone pitcher we saw in 2020 and 2021.
For one thing, hitters are putting a lot more balls on the ground against Skubal so far. His ground ball rate is now fifty percent, whereas it was 27.7 percent in 2021 and 38.5 percent in 2021. Even when hitters do lift one to the outfield, the average exit velocity on fly balls against Skubal is down two miles per hour, and he’s also doubled last year’s infield fly ball rate as a percentage of those diminished fly balls. Pitching in a spacious park at home, with a less predictable approach, and a ball that appears to be flying a little shorter this year, and there’s a pretty good recipe for Skubal to keep the likely regression checked at an acceptable rate.
Dropping into a groove
Back in 2019, Tarik Skubal absolutely torched the Florida State and Eastern Leagues as he broke out as one of the better pitching prospects in the game. Anyone who saw him pitch in Lakeland or for the Double-A Erie SeaWolves in the second half of the year will remember what it looked like. Skubal was just a four-seaming animal, buzzing mid-90s fastballs over bats with abandon, like some kind of Josh Hader 2.0, bigger and stronger. He could pump explosive four-seam fastballs 70 percent of the time and hitters rarely touched him as the strikeouts piled up to 40 percent of batters faced on the year.
Command and lack of a good breaking ball were more pressing issues for Skubal in his short 2020 debut. There weren’t many new changes in the majors until he came out in the spring of 2021 and the high spin fastball disappeared. Whether they anticipated the crackdown on grip or not, Skubal lost almost 400 rpm on his four-seamer on average. The huge riding life that carried it over bat after bat even in the center of the strike zone was largely lost. And so began another transformation, this time under Chris Fetter.
Skubal did a lot of things right last season to overcome the diminished, though still roughly average, four-seam movement. Most importantly his command improved. That plus a still good fastball with mid-90s velocity and a deceptive deliver can carry you a fair way. He began using the sinker more, understanding that he couldn’t just blow everyone away at the top of the zone any longer unless he really got the pitch in toward the edges or off the plate away as a chase pitch. More importantly, he was much more consistent with his slider and changeup, allowing him to rack up plenty of strikeouts despite the fact that his mistakes were getting whacked.
We’ve talked about the transition toward using a more diverse pitch mix already, and what’s been particularly impressive is that Skubal is still throwing the same ratio of pitches in the zone overall, and still throwing a high rate of first-pitch strikes too, all while preventing home runs and issuing only six walks heading into Sunday’s start with the Baltimore Orioles. He’s certainly not Greg Maddux out there, but he’s mixed all his pitches and managed to locate all of them around the edges pretty consistently without too many mistakes over the middle. That’s the name of the game.
There’s another interesting item to discuss that may help to explain a bit of Skubal’s success to date. He’s lowered his arm angle into more of a pure three-quarters slot this season, lowering his overall release height just an inch or so with each of his pitches.
The results have been pretty interesting. Overall, Skubal isn’t really getting much different movement from last year, other than nearly five inches of horizontal movement on his changeup. However, the slightly lower arm slot and a couple ticks more velocity are giving his slider a different look, particularly for right-handed hitters, as it sweeps across the plate a little more and is now averaging 88.6 mph instead of the 86.5 he averaged last year. Take a look at the first pitch in this highlight clip from Skubal’s last outing against the Oakland A’s.
That’s a 91 mph slider, and you can see the slightly lower arm slot involved. Along with his crossfire delivery, he’s getting a pretty good angle to the glove side edge where he can sweep it under a right-handed hitter's hands. Whether he’s going to continue to fire it in there in the 90 mph range remains to be seen, but it’s clearly muscled up compared to early iterations of his slider.
But wait there’s more. Skubal still isn’t using his knuckle curve much more than last year, but when he does break it out, hitters are tilting at windmills against it. We’ll see if he uses it more as he gets comfortable with the adjustments he’s made, but even using it sparingly, the curve helps him open up the outer half of the plate against right-handers and makes his changeup all the more effective.
Again there’s no one radical change involved, despite the fact that Skubal lost a key fastball trait last year. Instead, he and his coaches have managed a steady tuning of both his weapons and his command. His ability to keep evolving now has him looking like the Tigers’ best pitcher and a real breakout candidate league-wide. Eduardo Rodriguez may have something to say about that, but whatever comes, Skubal and his coaches have really done a nice job making adjustments.
It’s unlikely that Skubal is going to go like this with so few homers and walks allowed all season long. However, he really does look like he’s reached a new level in his game. With a rotation this banged up, and a team struggling for wins, they need him to keep it up.