How Detroit Tigers' Tarik Skubal proved he is ready for the major league rotation
CLEARWATER, Fla. — Detroit Tigers left-hander Tarik Skubal's bread and butter is his four-seam fastball. It sits around 95 mph but reaches the upper-90s, and when he executes up in the strike zone, he seems unstoppable.
But when a pitcher doesn't have his best stuff he must adjust. The ability to do so is often what separates players in the majors from the minors.
On Wednesday, Skubal, 24, didn't command his fastball well.
"It needs to get better," Skubal said Wednesday, as the Tigers lost 2-0 to the Philadelphia Phillies. "It wasn't great last outing, either. That's something I really got to focus on, but I'll take it. ... Everything else was really good."
Skubal is being modest.
Everything else was great Wednesday. He ran up his pitch count to 70 pitches (38 strikes) because of the fastball inconsistencies, but he still registered three scoreless innings and six strikeouts. Skubal's ability to adjust proves he is ready for the major leagues.
"I'm not going to tip our hand on what we're doing, but they're doing everything that we asked," Tigers manager AJ Hinch said Wednesday about Skubal and Julio Teheran, who had four scoreless innings and seven strikeouts. "They're having success, and they're doing well. And they need to pitch every five days."
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Take former National League MVP Bryce Harper's second at-bat as an example. There were two runners in scoring position with one out after Skubal's unreliable fastball was key in consecutive walks to start the third inning.
He battled Harper for eight pitches, staying calm through three foul balls. Ultimately, Skubal struck him out swinging with a 2-2 slider. Of those eight pitches, only one was a fastball.
It was Skubal's second time striking out Harper in as many at-bats. In the first inning, he delivered a 95.3 mph fastball to catch him looking.
"That inning was more valuable than actually going out for a fourth inning," Hinch said. "When you look at the Harper at-bat, having to hang in there with the breaking ball. He continued to go after that guy. For a young pitcher who is not only trying to make our team but also trying to figure out his identity of when he can throw strikes and when he's supposed to chase strikeouts, I thought he did a pretty good job of maintaining his composure."
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With two outs in the third inning, Skubal worked a masterful seven pitches against Alec Bohm, getting him to pop out in foul territory. He used two fastballs, both fouled away, before going to his curveball, cutter and slider.
Skubal's nonfastball pitches registered eight of his 12 swings-and-misses. He used 30 fastballs, 13 changeups, 10 sliders, nine curveballs and eight cutters.
For compassion, Skubal used 348 fastballs in his eight MLB games last season, followed by 97 changeups (now a splitter), 93 sliders, 46 curveballs and seven cutters.
"It is encouraging," Skubal said. "I got punch-outs with my curveball today. With my slider, I got two with that. And then with my splitter, I got a lot of good results.
"I threw a left-on-left splitter. It's the first time in my life I've ever thrown a left-on-left changeup. I threw it to Harper twice. Just being able to have that pitch, it's encouraging going forward. But fastball command is what I need to be really good at."
This spring, Skubal has tossed eight scoreless frames with three hits, three walks and 12 strikeouts.
And Wednesday's start might have locked him into the rotation.
"A little bit more comfort," Skubal said about how he feels compared to the 2020 season. "Confidence is another thing. I just feel a little bit more confident in my stuff."
After a break Thursday, the Tigers return to game action Friday against the Toronto Blue Jays in Lakeland. Right-hander Casey Mize is tabbed for the start. On Saturday, lefty Matthew Boyd will start against the Pittsburgh Pirates in Lakeland. Right-handers Matt Manning and Michael Fulmer are slated to pitch Sunday against the Phillies in Clearwater.
Manning is starting Sunday, and Fulmer will come out of the bullpen. This spring, Fulmer has allowed 10 runs in six innings, with five walks and three strikeouts.
"We're going to give him a different look," Hinch said about Fulmer. "He will end up pitching second or third."
The Tigers signed right-hander Wily Peralta to a minor-league contract with an invite to spring training Feb. 18, but the veteran is doubtful to make it to big-league camp. The 31-year-old is still dealing with visa and travel issues from the Dominican Republic.
"At this point in camp, we're unlikely to see him, from what I can gather," Hinch said. "Think about the seven-day entry into camp, and we have roughly 12-14 days left. I'm not anticipating seeing him."
Expect him to start in minor-league camp once the big leaguers depart for Detroit.