Why Detroit Tigers' Spencer Turnbull looks ready for a breakout 2020 season

Anthony Fenech
Detroit Free Press

It’s easy to forget about Spencer Turnbull.

It’s easy to forget he was a rookie in 2019. That he made 30 starts. Posted 2.3 wins above replacement, according to Baseball-Reference.com.

These days, there are more exciting Detroit Tigers pitchers to watch at Comerica Park than the 27-year-old Turnbull.

Perhaps it’s because Turnbull was never a top prospect. He’s unassuming, keeps to himself and blends in. Perhaps it’s because Turnbull was so effectively wild in the first half last year, with 84 strikeouts and a 3.31 ERA, that he couldn’t possibly keep it up in the second half. And when he didn’t, you were already tuned out on a 114-loss season, already fixated on the top prospects of the future.

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Tigers pitcher Spencer Turnbull pitches during the intrasquad scrimmage at Comerica Park on Saturday, July 11, 2020.

But his name kept ringing in the Tigers’ heads after spring training concluded in mid-March. The front office, coaches and players alike noticed a different Turnbull this year, one showing the fire burning beneath a mellow exterior.

Turnbull knows how good he can be. The innate late movement on pitches you can’t teach? He has it. A big body, standing 6-foot-3, 215-plus pounds with room to grow? Yep.

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And so, as he cruised through the early innings of Saturday’s intrasquad game, striking out four of the first eight batters he faced, another quiet reminder was put in place: Don’t forget about me.

The Tigers have not. Turnbull will be in the starting rotation. He was electric Saturday before allowing a pair of extra-base hits, but it’s not concerning.

“He just got a little tired there at the end,” manager Ron Gardenhire said. “Made a bad pitch and the guy hit it a country mile.

“But he threw the ball great. The ball was really coming out of his hands good. It was nice to see. His breaking balls were sharp and his velocity was good and we like what we saw. He said he just ran out of gas. You could see it — it was a little hot out there.”

Turnbull’s streak ended with a walk to Willi Castro. Then, Victor Reyes hit an RBI double to the opposite field in left-center field. Harold Castro followed with an RBI double off the wall in right field. Turnbull had exceeded his pitch limit and he walked off the mound after 2⅔ innings and 53 pitches.

“First time out there, he got the adrenaline going and that always takes away from you after you calm down,” Gardenhire said.

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It’s the sign of a young pitcher who is still trying to get over the hump: Turnbull, ornery when he gives up hits or walks, appeared to anger himself with the Willi Castro walk, which may have led to the extra-base hits.

This past offseason, Turnbull went back to the drawing board. Not that his rookie season was a waste — far from it — but he wanted to get better on and off the field.

“I think it’s just having a year under your belt, just being more comfortable with who you are and trusting in your abilities and just growing in confidence,” he said. “I’m just a lot more sure of myself right now.”

When he arrived in Lakeland, Florida, notice was given. And by the end of it, there was a distinct difference in body and mind.

“I surrounded myself with people who knew a lot more than I did and they helped me grow, so things panned out,” he said.

Asked what exactly he worked on, Turnbull said, “Normal durability issues and just how to get stronger and stay stronger through a season. A little more of an anti-inflammatory type lifestyle, just learning about nutrition and other things that might help me recover better and sleep better and also lifestyle habits that can help with any kind of stress and anxiety that was probably pretty overwhelming for me last year and just being more mindful. And I just have more people to talk to, that can help me whenever I get in a tough spot.”

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Reading between the lines, Turnbull grew up. He’s taking his craft more seriously. It's not that he wasn’t before, but a rookie season in the majors is grueling. It’s a separator, of sorts, from those who are content merely to compete at the highest level to those who want more from it.

Though he is far from a household name, or even top-of-mind in the organization, Turnbull once again showed he is one to watch. Last season, he showed flashes of domination. Now, it looks like he has taken the steps to go beyond mere flashes.

Contact Anthony Fenech at afenech@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @anthonyfenech. Read more on the Detroit Tigers and sign up for our Tigers newsletter.