Don't look now, but Tigers' Spencer Turnbull is building a strong ROY case

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
Tigers pitcher Spencer Turnbull and catcher Grayson Greiner.

Kansas City, Mo. — We found out a few things about Tigers rookie Spencer Turnbull on Tuesday night.

For one, he’s got more fight in him than you’d think from his typically gentle demeanor. And — who knew? — the guy has a legitimate curveball.

Turnbull pitched six scoreless, four-hit innings before the Royals rallied against the bullpen and beat the Tigers, 3-2. And he did it, for the most part, without his best secondary pitch, his slider — a pitch hitters swing and miss at 36% of the time, a pitch with which he holds hitters to a .153 average with a 41% strikeout rate.

“Through the first couple of innings, he was yanking his slider and throwing it in the dirt,” catcher Grayson Greiner said. “But it was a good adjustment by him to recognize, ‘Hey, I need to throw more curveballs to keep the hitters off my fastball.’”

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For any pitcher, going into a start without one of your primary assets is, to say the least, discomfiting. Turnbull threw seven of them in the first four innings, none in the third and only two of them were strikes. And one of those, to Jorge Soler in the first inning, spun over the heart of the plate.

Soler didn’t get his barrel on it and topped it on the ground to second base.

Turnbull didn’t panic, at least not outwardly. He just adjusted his game plan, inserting curveballs where he might have otherwise thrown the slider.

“It was the best my curveball has been in a while, for sure,” Turnbull said. “I had been off with it a little bit, but I found it (Tuesday) and it’s a good thing I did. The slider was not good early on. I found it later and threw some pretty good ones, but for the first four innings, I didn’t feel like I threw a good one.”

He struck out both Cheslor Cuthbert and Nicky Lopez with curveballs in the second inning and ended up throwing a season-high 20 of them — getting six swings and misses and five called strikes.

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“He did a great job,” Greiner said. “He didn’t give up a lot of hard contact. He got us through six innings and gave us a good chance to win.”

Talk about him being a fighter, the fourth and fifth innings were case studies.

In the fourth, the Royals had runners on second and third with two outs. Turnbull had walked Cuthbert on a seven-pitch at-bat, after he was ahead in the count, 1-2. To compound his angst, Cuthbert and Adalberto Mondesi pulled off a double steal.

But he went to work on the next hitter, Lopez. He fell behind 2-0 and then threw three straight curveballs to run the count full. First base was open and slugging left-handed hitter Ryan O’Hearn was on deck.

Turnbull bowed his neck and fired a 95-mph fastball on Lopez’s hands – inning-ending ground out.

Then in the fifth, after getting the first two batters out in four pitches, Turnbull gave up an infield hit to Billy Hamilton and a bloop single to Whit Merrifield. After another double steal, the Royals had the tying runs in scoring position with Alex Gordon hitting.

Big moment, and again Turnbull didn’t rattle. He used the curveball to get ahead 1-2. Then, after missing with a fastball, and Gordon possibly thinking he’d go back to the curveball, Turnbull blew a 94-mph fastball right by him.

“That’s what’s he’s been doing for us all year,” Greiner said. “He has that knack for making a big pitch when he needs to.”

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The numbers support that. According to Baseball Reference, with two outs and runners in scoring position, Turnbull is holding opponents to a .171 average (6-for-35) with 13 strikeouts.

Here’s something else to like about Turnbull — he seems to get better as the game goes on. He is limiting hitters to a .169 average (12-for-71) the third time through the order. And opponents are hitting .203 against him on pitches 76 to 100.

Which is food for thought, for manager Ron Gardenhire and pitching coach Rick Anderson, who anguished over the decision to take Turnbull out after six innings Tuesday. He was at 96 pitches.

"We were going to send him back out," Gardenhire said. "But then if he walks the first hitter, what are we going to do? We go get him and here we go again. How many times have we done that one? But you either go hitter by hitter or you let him go out to 120 pitches and Jack Morris the heck out of the game.

“We didn’t want to do that.”

Spencer Turnbull should be in discussion for AL rookie of the year.

Again, everything about the 2019 season is framed in context of the rebuild. As an organization, you need to be wary of over-extending a rookie pitcher who has a history of injury issues. On the other hand, if he’s going to be cog in the rotation going forward, he needs to learn how to navigate through seven innings.

“After the fact, he basically told us that he was hanging and that he was glad we (took him out),” Gardenhire said. “You can see when a pitcher is laboring a little and starting to force pitches. But we were thinking, ‘Let’s let him go and let’s see what happens.’

“But when you talk about it, you don’t want to see the kid get hurt or over-extended. We’re trying to do the right thing by this kid. We really like him.”

Turnbull said after the game he wanted to pitch the seventh inning, but he understood what Gardenhire and Anderson were concerned about.

"That's my goal every time I go out — to pitch at least seven innings,” he said. “There were a couple of at-bats that I just didn't execute well enough and a couple of walks that probably should never have happened.

"I thought I pitched well tonight, but I would have liked to get into the seventh and save our bullpen."

That’s the next step in his development. There is a higher level of efficiency he can get to, especially with the quality of his five-pitch mix. The walks are part of it, as are the long at-bats after he’s got hitters in an 0-2 or 1-2 hole.

“Overall, I think I did a decent job,” Turnbull said. “They did a good job fouling off pitches and I thought I threw some good pitches, too, that they didn’t swing at.

"Give them some credit.”

The other part of his game that needs some attention is holding runners. The Royals swiped three bases off him in six innings. Base runners are 10-for-10 in stolen-base attempts against him. That’s the most stolen bases allowed in the major leagues without anyone getting caught.

“He gets into a little bit of a rhythm,” Gardenhire said. “You’ve got to be able to step off, hold the ball a little bit. He’s just gets so focused on the hitter — that’s part of it.”

When Turnbull uses a slide-step, a quicker delivery to the plate, he can keep runners honest. But Gardenhire said with his normal delivery out of the stretch, he’s about 1.35 to 1.4 to home plate — which is inviting to base stealers.

“But let’s not use this Royals team as a bar,” Gardenhire said. “Because I don’t care what your time to home is, they’re flying.

"But holding runners is something he needs to work on.”

It almost seems like nit-picking, because on the whole, Turnbull is exceeding expectations.

Don’t look now, but he’s putting himself in the early discussions for American League rookie of the year. His 2.78 ERA is sixth in the AL and his 2.3 WAR is ninth. He’s allowed three runs or less in 13 of his 14 starts, and he leads all qualified rookie pitchers in innings (77.2) and strikeouts (73).

Twitter: @cmccosky