Pittsburgh, Pa. — Tigers rookie right-hander Spencer Turnbull said it three starts ago, after another high-pitch count, low-innings start against Tampa Bay.
“I think I need to make an adjustment,” Turnbull said that night after he was outdueled by the Rays' Charlie Morton. “They aren’t swinging at my slider. I have to throw it in the strike zone more often so they can’t just eliminate it.”
Easier said than done, of course, especially for a pitcher like Turnbull who possesses dynamic, hard-to-harness movement on his pitches. But it is clear the good-hitting teams have come to a consensus plan of attack against him.
They aren’t going to honor his slider, or his curveball, until he proves he can throw them in the strike zone.
The start against Rays and his start Sunday against the Indians were carbon copies — both 92 pitches and just five innings. Neither of those disciplined offenses offered much at his slider — unless it was hung over the middle of the plate, like the one Jason Kipnis poleaxed for a two-run home run.
Turnbull, who was averaging 29 sliders per start from the middle of April to the end of May and getting close to a 50-percent whiff rate on it, threw just 12 sliders and 14 curveballs at the Indians. He got one swinging strike (with the curve) and no called strikes.
“I didn't think either one of them were super sharp today,” Turnbull said after the game. “I threw some good ones, but they were too inconsistent. When I needed to make a pitch, I wasn't able to.”
That’s because he had to rely almost exclusively on his fastball to bail him out. And that’s a bad strategy against a smart, balanced offensive team like Cleveland, as evidenced by the season-high six earned runs he allowed in five innings.
“He just has to strike it (throw the slider in the strike zone),” pitching coach Rick Anderson told MLB.com Sunday. “Once he strikes it, that's going to open it up. But he's just yanking it off a lot more. Once you throw it for strikes, then they have to respect it.
“But he's not consistently throwing it for strikes. So they're just spitting on it and eliminating it, trying to go to the other pitches.”
That’s a deal-breaker for Turnbull. Not that his fastball isn’t good — it certainly is, both his four-seam and sinker register between 90-95 mph. But his slider is an elite pitch — .190 opponents’ batting average, 38.6 percent strikeout rate — far too nasty too allow hitters to simply eliminate it.
Turnbull has shown he can beat the lesser-hitting teams without his good slider. He pitched six scoreless innings against the Royals in his previous start before Sunday. The Royals hitters chased 60 percent of his sliders (which by his own admission wasn’t very sharp) and 75 percent of his curveballs.
The Indians weren’t having any of it. They were taking his slider and breaking ball, and they weren’t swinging and missing (seven total) on his fastball. When he did throw a quality pitch, more often than not they fouled it off (24 fouls balls in five innings) or got a jam-shot or seeing-eye hit.
“They’re a good-hitting team,” Turnbull said. “And I definitely didn’t have my best stuff. It was just kind of one of those days. I’m not sure what it was. I just had a hard time finding what would work.”
Turnbull, with 15 starts, is about halfway through his first full big-league season. He’s reached a point now where he needs to make an adjustment to counter what the hitters have figured out against him. This is the dance every pitcher, young and old, does through the course of a 30-start season.
“He's a work in progress,” Anderson said. “That's what I tell everyone: Think about where he was a year ago (still pitching in Double-A). He's come a long, long, long way. Games like this, those things happen, but he's come a long way from where he's been.
Turnbull will get a quick shot at redemption against the Indians. He will make his next start in Cleveland on either Friday or Saturday.
“It was just one of those days where you are trying to figure something out and you’re having a hard time getting there,” Turnbull said. “But you still have to compete and battle with what you got. I just have to trash this one and get ready for next week.”
Who's got Wednesday?
The Tigers have not listed a starting pitcher for the game against the Pirates on Wednesday. The internal debate over the weekend was whether veteran Jordan Zimmermann might be available.
Out since April 26 with a UCL strain, Zimmermann threw 69 pitches in a 4.2-inning rehab start for the Toledo Mud Hens at Durham on Thursday. He has already cast his vote in favor of making the start.
“I’m not sure what the plan is, but hopefully my next start will be here,” he said.
Manager Ron Gardenhire acknowledged it was being discussed, but it was by far a certainty.
“If he’s healthy,” Gardenhire said. “We can’t force it. If his next start is here, how many innings are we allowed to use him? Honestly, if he’s at 60-65 pitches, that could be three innings or it can be six innings. It could become another bullpen game and we're trying to stay away from too many of those.
“But if he’s OK to pitch up here and everyone feels it’s the right thing to do — then I’m all for it.”
The Tigers won't need a fifth starter until June 29. The fourth starter spot, filled by lefty Gregory Soto on Saturday, will roll around again June 22.
The Tigers after the game Sunday optioned Soto back to Triple-A Toledo, so there is an open spot on the roster.
Around the horn
Right-hander Beau Burrows, the Tigers’ No. 6-rated prospect, was activated off the injured list Monday and was scheduled to pitch for High-A Lakeland.
On deck: Pirates
Series: Two-game series at PNC Park, Pittsburgh
First pitch: 7:05 p.m. Tuesday-Wednesday
Probables: Tuesday — RHP Mitch Keller (0-1, 15.43) vs. LHP Daniel Norris (2-5, 4.52); Wednesday — RHP Trevor Williams (2-1, 3.33) vs. TBA
►Keller, Pirates: The No. 1 prospect in the Pirates system will be making his third big-league start and his first at home. The first two were rough, as evidenced by a .472 opponents’ batting average and a 3.0 WHIP.
►Norris, Tigers: He’s been gritty, to say the least. Over his last three starts, he’s allowed 23 hits, four walks and a hit batter in 16 innings — allowing 11 runs, six of those in one start. He’s limited the damage, for the most part. But the home run ball is killing him. Eight of the last 12 runs he’s allowed have come off homers.