Michael Fulmer's status gives Spencer Turnbull big opportunity with Tigers

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
Tigers pitcher Spencer Turnbull (pictured) could get a shot as the team's fifth starter to open the season because of Michael Fulmer's uncertain status.

Lakeland, Fla. — We learned this about Spencer Turnbull last September, when he made his four-game, big-league audition with the Tigers.

The lanky Alabaman may look like a picture of tranquility on the mound, but there is a torrent of emotion roiling inside of him.

“It’s easier to look even-keeled,” he said with a smile. “It’s a lot harder to keep it inside.”

Turnbull’s placid spring has turned a bit more anxious this week, first with the news that Michael Fulmer’s surgically-repaired right knee might not be ready by the time the Tigers break camp next week.

Then Tuesday, the Tigers announced Fulmer might need Tommy John surgery after experiencing right-elbow soreness following a bullpen session.

By all accounts, that would put Turnbull in line for a spot in the rotation.

“I am aware of it,” Turnbull said, cautiously, before Tuesday's news broke. “I don’t want it to affect my preparations. It shouldn’t. I just try to do the best I can every time I am out there and whatever opportunities come my way, I just try to take advantage of them.

“I am doing everything I can to put myself in a good position. I can’t control any of those external factors. I have a hard enough time controlling what I have going on inside me.”

Again, you wouldn’t suspect it by his leisurely demeanor, but the 26-year-old Turnbull has long been a bad sleeper. It was a real problem for him last spring training, when, in his first big-league camp, he was dragging himself exhausted through the first month.

“I was getting in here later, and I was still exhausted all the time,” he said.

Finally, this offseason he went to a sleep clinic and discovered he suffered from sleep apnea.

“I’ve always struggled with my sleep, but I never knew I had sleep apnea,” he said. “And I had a hard time wearing the machine (CPAP), so I searched for other ways to get better sleep. I made some changes to my diet.

“Being disciplined is part of it, too, knowing that I need extra sleep and actually going to bed early. Going to bed at 9 p.m. is really hard, but when you are waking up at five or six in the morning, you have to.”

He has talked a bit to teammate Matthew Boyd, who has become somewhat of a nutritional guru in the Tigers clubhouse.

“Boyd is on the higher end of that stuff,” Turnbull said. “I do about a half of what he does. But I’ve taken some notes and made some changes. Just learning what it takes to actually get up every morning. It’s been a journey and by no means have I figured it out.

“But I am taking steps to help myself stay fresh.”

Have a little faith

Turnbull, as he said, has done nothing but put himself in a positive position. An argument easily could be made that he’s deserving of a rotation spot, regardless of Fulmer’s situation. After making a strong impression in his three starts and one relief appearance last season, he has allowed three runs in 10 innings this spring, with four strikeouts.

His last start Friday against the Rays in Port Charlotte was impressive. Featuring a power sinker, he allowed one run on five hits over four innings, with two punch-outs.

“I’ve always had the sinker, but I was never really consistent with it,” Turnbull said. “I’ve got more experience under my belt, and I’ve learned how to adjust my grip or whatever in the game if it’s not sinking enough.

“It’s just learning my body, my mechanics a little bit has got me more consistent with that pitch.”

He threw 120 sinkers last September (Statcast), all between 94-95 mph, and big-league batters hit .297 off it with a .349 weighted on-base average. It’s a nasty pitch, results notwithstanding — as the Milwaukee Brewers hitters confirmed on the last day of the regular season.

“When I walked to the mound to take him out, those guys on the other side were high-fiving,” manager Ron Gardenhire said earlier this spring. “They were happy I was taking him out. I’m telling you, they were. And a couple of their guys said it, too.”

The only issue Turnbull has ever had with the pitch over the years was having the proper faith in it.

“What got me in trouble earlier in my career, I wanted to see so much movement,” he said. “I wasn’t just going to throw it for a strike as much. I wanted to get more swings and misses. I’ve honed it in a little bit, trusting it and even if it’s not moving three feet, it’s good enough to miss a barrel and get a ground ball.

“Even on days when it’s not as nasty as it’s ever been, it’s still good. I can still get a lot of ground balls with it. So now I’m not afraid to throw it over the plate.”

Hitters need to honor that power sinker, but Turnbull also has in his tool bag a 93-94 mph four-seam fastball that he likes to use up in the strike zone, a biting curveball at 81 mph, and a hard cutter at 88-89 mph.

Oh, yes, and he has a hard change-up, too, at 88 mph. He’s almost forgotten that pitch this spring.

“I made big strides with my breaking balls, the consistency of them, late last summer,” he said. “The change-up, I haven’t tried it much. I need to throw that more, probably. It’s a pitch I use deeper in games just to mix it in.

“But it’s a pitch I have and it’s a pitch I like, too.”

Take nothing for granted

Turnbull has had this arsenal all through his five-year climb through the Tigers' system. He just hasn't, until now, known exactly the best way to use it.

“For me, it’s more about learning when to use my stuff and knowing what I have that day,” he said. “It took me a long time to figure out like, what’s working today. The curveball’s got some depth to it today, or my slider is hard but it’s shorter, or it’s slower but it’s a little bigger.

“Just little things like that — noticing it and learning how to use it.”

That’s the kind of knowledge you can only gain through experience. Here's something else experience has taught him: Don’t look too far ahead in this game. He went into the offseason thinking he was in line to be the fifth starter. Then the Tigers signed veterans Matt Moore and Tyson Ross.

So, he’s certainly not taking anything for granted now, with Fulmer out of the rotation.

“You notice those things, but there’s nothing I can do about that,” he said. “This game can be tough on the body. You just never know when something might happen. You just always need to be ready. That’s what I’ve tried to do.”


Twitter: @cmccosky