Detroit Tigers taking 'different approach' to baseball, and Spencer Turnbull likes it

Evan Petzold
Detroit Free Press

Detroit Tigers right-hander Spencer Turnbull loves former manager Ron Gardenhire. He enjoyed learning from ex-pitching coach Rick Anderson. Together, they guided the 28-year-old through three significant periods of his career — reaching the majors in 2018, finding fortitude amid a hefty workload in 2019 and discovering some consistency in 2020.

"He was incredible," Turnbull said Wednesday about Anderson.

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Turnbull's upcoming season is filled with fresh perspectives. He gets to chase frontline-starter status under manager AJ Hinch, a 2017 World Series champion. And new pitching coach Chris Fetter is set to help him find the tools needed to get there.

"I haven't played for AJ yet," Turnbull said. "I haven't played for Chris Fetter yet. I don't know what that's going to be like. I just know their ideas and things their talking about sound new and exciting. I'm interested to see how they play out.

"I have no idea how AJ manages his game. But the way he described it, sounds like he can help us win. Whatever that takes, I want to win. Everybody wants to win. So I'm excited to see how that unfolds and shakes out."

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Detroit Tigers pitching coach Rick Anderson talks with pitcher Spencer Turnbull during the fifth inning against the Tampa Bay Rays, Wednesday, June 5, 2019, in Detroit.

Fetter, who spent the last three seasons as Michigan's pitching coach, is already making positive impressions with his emails, text messages and phone calls, where he shares in-depth analytics with each pitcher.

Daniel Norris described Fetter as "beyond incredible," adding it took him 15 minutes to get through one of his emails. Matthew Boyd said he's "so smart and so versed in many things." But Turnbull may have described the Hinch-Fetter combination best: It's a "new direction" implemented by a "different approach."

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Many of the older pitchers believe prospects Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal, ranked by MLB Pipeline at Nos. 2 and 5, respectively, in the farm system, will surely benefit from the new-age Tigers.

"He's going to be a great help, not just to me personally but to the pitching staff as a whole," Turnbull said. "I'm excited. He hasn't passed any tests yet. We have to actually see what he's like in person, see how that goes. But everything he's told me, I think he's going to be really helpful."

In 2020, Turnbull posted a 3.97 ERA and 1.341 WHIP in 56⅔ innings across 11 starts. He finished 4-4 on the year, a solid overall improvement from his 2019 campaign, when he had a 3-17 record with a 4.61 ERA.

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Following his final game of last season, former bench coach Lloyd McClendon — acting as the manager for the retired Gardenhire — said Turnbull has the makeup to "pitch at the top of the rotation for a long time," as long as he learns to trust his stuff.

Detroit Tigers' Spencer Turnbull pitches to a Kansas City Royals batter during the third inning of a baseball game Saturday, Aug. 10, 2019, in Detroit. The Tigers and Royals are wearing uniforms in honor of the Negro League's Detroit Stars and Kansas City Monarchs. (AP Photo/Duane Burleson)

His slider allowed a .151 batting average last season, followed by his four-seam fastball (.198 batting average), changeup (.211) and two-seam fastball (.347). The swing-and-miss rate on his slider was 43.6%, putting him in the top 45 of all pitchers. Cleveland Indians ace Shane Bieber topped the list with a 61.2% whiff rate on his slider.

Turnbull needs to be more consistent with his two-seamer. But outside of testing a few new techniques and fine-tuning what he already offers, he isn't making a ton of adjustments this winter.

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Recently, Turnbull has taken an interest in learning more about the analytics of his pitches. Once he gets to spring training on Feb. 17, when pitchers and catchers are scheduled to report, he will soak up Fetter's knowledge.

"It fits what I've been trying to learn and where I'm hoping my game can be taken to," he said. "It's definitely going to be good for me."

Yet the numbers behind the numbers from Fetter are merely Turnbull's blueprint. He must execute his pitches, trust his repertoire and deliver. Accomplishing that feat comes from within his own psyche, he said.

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Known as an emotional pitcher, Turnbull gets overwhelmed at times, causing him to lose command. He hit an American League-leading 16 batters in 2019. He only plunked two batters last season, but his 12% walk rate was a career-worst (and the second-worst among MLB starters with more than 50 innings).

"Breathing helps me a lot," Turnbull said. "On a scale of one to 10, I want to be right around a seven, seven-and-a-half. If I get up to like an eight or nine or 10, I need to bring it back down. But, also, I don't want to be pitching at a four or five. That's not hyped up enough.

"It's just being able to regulate your emotions and energy and keep yourself in that sweet spot. For me, it's around a seven."

Evan Petzold is a sports reporter at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.