Right-hander Spencer Turnbull, from Alabama, was the Tigers' second-round draft pick in 2014. (Associated Press / Phil Sears)
Editor’s note: First in a series profiling the Tigers’ top-10-round draft picks for 2014.
Detroit — Growing up, Spencer Turnbull never really had a favorite Major League Baseball team. His dad, Jim, is from New York, thus there was some Yankees chatter occasionally, but nothing die-hard. Most people in the South default to the Braves, but Turnbull never really did.
So early on in high school, especially during his sophomore year, he sported the flat-bill Detroit Tigers hat — for no other reason than he liked the look.
Good thing. The Tigers are his team now, having selected the University of Alabama right-hander in the second round, 63rd overall, of last week’s draft.
The call came when Turnbull was back home in Madison, Miss., on the back porch, eating the home-cooked lasagna his mom, Missy, had prepared.
“I followed them some,” Turnbull said during a Monday phone conversation. “I’ll definitely follow them a lot more now. I’ve always been a fan of (Justin) Verlander and (Max) Scherzer. I love watching those guys pitch, and I saw (Anibal) Sanchez pitch last night.
“I’m definitely pleased where I got picked. I know that they’re first-class.”
Turnbull couldn’t confirm, but the Alabama junior is expected to skip his senior season and sign with the Tigers for right around slot, $900,600, before heading off to the Tigers’ rookie-ball team in Connecticut.
There, he’s expected to continue to start — which he’s done almost all his career, dating to Little League. That’s what he knows. That’s his preference.
“Obviously, I’m open to whatever they need from me,” said Turnbull, 21. “But starting fits my body-type more, fits my style of pitching. It’s not like I’m opposed to one or the other, but I’ve started my whole life. I like the routine. I’m a guy who can throw a long time. I don’t really get tired, my velocity stays.”
Turnbull is big, at 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds, and projects as a guy who could go 200-plus innings. He made 45 appearances in three years at Alabama, 40 of them starts. He got better each year, capped by a junior year in which he was 5-7 with a 2.22 ERA with a .192 opponents’ batting average. He struck out 61 in 93.1 innings, not bad in the competitive SEC.
He’s got a four-pitch arsenal, though a fastball that sits mid-90s — and can hit 97 and 98 mph — is his bread and butter. Extensive work on his mechanics, and in the weightroom, got his velocity up this season.
“The two-seam is a special pitch for me,” Turnbull said. “It’s really heavy, with a lot of run. It’s just really hard to square up.”
His go-to secondary pitch is the slider, but he also throws a more traditional curveball, along with a change-up. David Chadd, the Tigers draft chief, likened Turnbull to Orioles pitcher Tommy Hunter, another big right-hander.
Turnbull knew the Tigers were interested in him. He’d heard multiple times from the Tigers’ area scout for Alabama, Bryson Barber, and they met ahead of the draft. The Tigers surprised most everyone when they chose a high-school outfielder, Derek Hill, with their first-round pick. They went back to their more conventional path, pitching, in the second round with Turnbull, who led Madison Central High School to a 2009 Mississippi state championship.
“I hadn’t really heard anything from anybody, so you kind of assume you were weren’t going,” Turnbull said, of watching the first two rounds on MLB Network on Thursday night. “I was kind of nervous.
“I was ecstatic when I got picked.”
Turnbull may not have a favorite team, but he considers himself an avid fan of the game, in general. But there’s more to him than that. He played basketball and football growing up, even quarterbacking the high-school team before he quit just before his senior year to focus more on baseball. He also plays tennis, and likes to golf — he can shoot high 80s on a good day, but “the short game leaves something to be desired.”
Turnbull also likes to read — particularly novels and spiritual books, like Judah Smith’s New York Times bestseller, “Jesus Is ____.” He’s a music buff too; he wishes he played an instrument. Turnbull also likes his movies, particularly from the goofy genre, like “Happy Gilmore.” He can endlessly recite from “Anchorman.”
“Great movie,” he said, laughing. “Great quotes.”
Well, now we know how he’ll pass the time on those long bus rides throughout the New York-Penn League.
Turnbull is the 19th Alabama player the Tigers have taken in the draft, and 11th under general manager Dave Dombrowski. In the second round, he’s the earliest the Tigers have taken an Alabama player in the draft — even ahead of their current starting catcher, former All-Star Alex Avila, who was a fifth-rounder in 2008. Turnbull and Avila haven’t crossed paths, but an introduction might not be too far off. Heck, they could be teammates soon.
And in that case, Turnbull will rock the Detroit hat again — this one, compliments of the Tigers.