What Detroit Tigers' Spencer Turnbull needs to be a frontline starter for years

Evan Petzold
Detroit Free Press

Spencer Turnbull led major league pitchers in one category last season.


He took 17 of them. Also, he paced the American League with 16 hit batsmen and allowed 59 walks. His 4.61 ERA and 1.436 WHIP further contributed to his crippling rookie performance.

As a second-round college draftee in 2014, Turnbull took five years to crack the Detroit Tigers' starting rotation. He pitched fearlessly before last season's All-Star break but had a miserable second half to end 2019.

For subscribers: Making the case for Willi Castro as AL Rookie of the Year

On Friday, Turnbull finished his 11th and final start in the shortened 2020 season. He registered four wins — one more than last year — with a rotation-leading 3.97 ERA and 51 strikeouts. Although his 29 walks (top 10 in AL) exposed command problems, he was much improved.

"Just waiting on the point where he trusts his stuff," interim manager Lloyd McClendon said Friday. "Because it's so good."

Detroit Tigers starting pitcher Spencer Turnbull winds up during the first inning of the team's baseball game against the Kansas City Royals on Friday, Sept. 25, 2020, in Kansas City, Mo.

His journey began with a new offseason regimen. 

The most important components of Turnbull's training had little to do with baseball. Nutrition, sleep habits, lifestyle adjustments to calm his stress and anxiety, mental health and overall strength were his points of emphasis.

[ Jeimer Candelario's season ends with back injury ]

He always had the repertoire, velocity (touches 97 mph) and determination to compete, but he knew he would continue to suffer if not for a cardinal adjustment. 

Easier said than done.

"I think the biggest thing is just to stop caring about what everybody else thinks about you," Turnbull said Friday. "I felt for so long I had to do these things that I thought everybody else wanted me to do to try to fit in or whatever. The more I've been able to just be myself, I've had so much more success, so much more peace in my mind and heart."

[ Where Michael Fulmer is headed after 'trial run' in 2020 ]

The 28-year-old put his behind-the-scenes work into practice in spring training with a 0.82 ERA in four starts. He felt better than he has in his entire life, but the COVID-19 pandemic pitched him a roadblock.

Baseball went into a four-month hibernation. Stepping away from the daily grind of the game "screwed up" the offseason progress Turnbull made, but he didn't lose total focus.

His resiliency shined through in many moments this season. Take Friday's start as a recent example. He wiggled out of a first-inning jam to strand the bases loaded, limiting the Royals to one run. And in the second, his 84.6 mph slider struck out Salvador Perez with a runner on third base. 

"I did as good of a job as I could expect of myself in those situations," Turnbull said. "It was frustrating at times, but I still made some pretty good pitches when I was in trouble."

[ Casey Mize's bright Tigers future remains intact despite struggles ]

Yet he could've avoided that runner on third. He punched out Whit Merrifield swinging on an 83.4 mph curveball well below the zone. The next batter, Adalberto Mondesi, took a similar curveball — just near the bottom edge of the zone — for a triple to right field.

Knowing how aggressive Mondesi is against him, Turnbull wishes he would've bounced his pitch in the dirt, resembling what he did with Merrifield. That's a lesson learned, and he is confident that he knows what to do next time.

Detroit Tigers starting pitcher Spencer Turnbull, left, and catcher Eric Haase meet on the mound after Turnbull walked in a run during the first inning of the team's baseball game against the Kansas City Royals on Friday, Sept. 25, 2020, in Kansas City, Mo.

"Mentally, there's still a lot of work to be done," Turnbull said. "I made a lot of improvements. I'm really excited how much I was able to change in just one offseason, but there's still a long way to go. I don't know if I'll ever arrive or anything like that."

Sure, his command needs to be ironed out, but instead of frantically scrambling back to an empty drawing board, he can select what he wants to tweak before next spring training.

Having an already-full list of small changes to make shows the value of taking a king-sized step forward in his career this year.

Now, it's time for Turnbull to continue building by trusting his pitch selection, upgrading his command and taking his offseason training into a (hopefully) normal 2021 season.

"He is a frontline pitcher," McClendon said. "He'll pitch at the top of the rotation for a long time. He continues to get better each and every time out. There's a learning curve, and he will continue to learn and get better."

Evan Petzold is a sports reporting intern at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold. The Free Press has started a new digital subscription model. Here's how you can gain access to our most exclusive Detroit Tigers content