Detroit — Wherever Scott Pleis has gone this summer, invariably, someone will ask him about Tarik Skubal. Like this week at the Major League Baseball scouting directors’ meetings in California.
“The first thing everybody says, ‘Holy cow, did you know Skubal was that good?’” said Pleis, the Tigers' director of amateur scouting. “I always say, ‘Sure we did.’”
His laughter belies any actual sincerity.
The Tigers had no idea Skubal, a left-handed pitcher from Seattle University they drafted in the ninth round in 2018, would be this good — certainly not this soon. He was 21 at the time of the draft, less than two years removed from Tommy John surgery and coming off an inconsistent junior season.
No way anybody in the Tigers organization could have foreseen that by August of 2019 he’d have already cracked MLB.com’s top 100 prospects list, and that between High-A Lakeland and Double-A Erie he would have a 2.39 ERA, a 1.006 WHIP and 157 strikeouts in 109.1 innings.
Or that he would rise to No. 4 on the Tigers' prospect list following first-round picks Casey Mize, Matt Manning and Riley Greene.
“Skubal’s name was in position (to be taken at some point on the second day of the draft),” Pleis said. “But it was up there with a bunch of other guys.”
This is the story of how Skubal emerged from that pack of potential draftees on the Tigers' big board. It is a story of longtime relationships and an unlikely alliance between the Tigers' front office and the most powerful agent in baseball.
The Boras connection
The ninth round of the 2018 draft was about to commence and the Tigers, with the first pick, were about to go on the clock.
One of the players at the top of their board at that time was a client of the Scott Boras Corporation and assistant general manager David Chadd was on the phone talking to Scott Chiamparino, who heads up Boras’ amateur division.
“I was standing up by the board in front of the room,” said James Orr, the Tigers' east regional crosschecker. “I was in front of David and Scott Pleis, who were sitting right next to each other. We were talking about a player that the Boras people represented and while David was on the phone, that player was selected.”
Back to square one for the Tigers.
“But David stayed on the phone (with Chiamparino),” Orr said. “They brought up Tarik Skubal and they said some really good things.”
Skubal was on the Tigers’ board, as Pleis said, but there were red flags. The Tommy John surgery and although his strikeout rate was exceptional, his walk rate was alarming.
“Actually, where we had him was right around when we took him,” Orr said. “But there were a lot of names up there. Why he wasn’t one of the names we were really talking about a lot was because he had some medical stuff — Tommy John.
“He was on our board, but we had concerns. He wasn’t bad enough (medically) to where we wouldn’t select him, but it was acknowledged that there was some concern there.”
Chiamparino, though, shared with Chadd some of the scouting work done by Bill Caudill, the former Cubs and Mariners reliever who is one of Boras’ top amateur evaluators. He also shared some of their psychological profiles.
“I’ve known David (Chadd) for a long time,” Boras said in a phone interview on Tuesday. “So has Scott (Chiamparino). We first saw Tarik throw, our first reports on him were from his freshman year at Seattle University. But he missed his junior year and coming back from Tommy John, he was rusty and inconsistent.
“But we knew we had a high-end talent who was going through the Tommy John process and therefore was not properly graded in the scouting system.”
Boras’ relationship with the Tigers, particularly with late owner Mike Ilitch, goes back as far as the signing of Ivan Rodriguez before the 2004 season. His relationship with Chadd and general manager Al Avila goes back 20-plus years. It was Boras who encouraged the Tigers to take a hard look at a 19-year-old New Jersey high school pitcher named Rick Porcello.
“As the draft went on, Scott called David and said, ‘Hey, we’ve got Tarik here and we think he’s pretty special,’” Boras said. “And with our history that goes way back, we’ve had an amazing success rate, frankly. Way above the major league average.
“And that’s because the players we’re taking we really do a lot of screening on. We are very selective about who we represent in the draft. David is certainly one of the baseball people who take what we have to say knowing we have an amateur staff of 12 to 14 people and we study players for a long time. David is aware of that.”
Rolling the dice
As the clock was ticking down, Chadd relayed all this information to Orr and Pleis, which led the Tigers to take a closer look at their own reports on Skubal.
“We had a lot of reports on this guy,” Orr said. “We had reports from the area scouts, multiple crosscheckers. Tim Hallgren (national crosschecker who specializes in pitcher evaluations) had the best velo on him. He had him up to 95.
“It was like, ‘Wow, here we are getting ready to go into the ninth round and we’ve got a left-handed pitcher who throws 95, that we have a lot of good information on from people that we trust.’ There’s some good numbers there. And yes, there are some concerning numbers, too.”
The Tigers know command is the last thing that typically returns to a pitcher following Tommy John surgery. Skubal’s control was good before the surgery, and they thought it would be a good bet it would come back.
“David relayed all of that information to Scott (Pleis) and he said, ‘Let’s take him next,’” Orr said. “We had a lot of looks at the kid. They weren’t all great, but when you look at the whole, the ninth round is not a bad time to roll the dice on someone, either.”
Fourteen months later, Skubal is a rising star in the Tigers’ farm system.
Would the Tigers have taken Skubal without the nudge from the Boras Corporation?
“Information is paramount,” Pleis said. “And relationships are extremely important. We scout them, we evaluate them. We evaluate their makeup, their ability, their tools — we evaluate everything there is to evaluate, the medicals, everything.
“But when you get more information like we did, the best way to say it is, when David got the phone call from Scott Chiamparino — we’ve talked with these people over the years, not just with this player, we know where these guys are coming from — I think that did take us over the top. No question about it.”
The reports the Tigers got from the Boras Corporation on Skubal’s psychological profile helped nudge them toward the pick, too.
“Tarik is a guy with a great arm, but he also has an amazing psychology,” Boras said. “We are fully aware that anybody can take the Rapsodo camera and record the data and the spin rates — every team has that information. We have that information.
“The ideal dynamic has to be, who can make the adjustments? Who can be persevering? Who is going to have a work ethic to withstand the game?”
It was, in a large part, those traits in Tigers ace Matthew Boyd that attracted Boras.
“Why do we represent Matt Boyd?” Boras said. “Because his persistence, his drive, his character have allowed him to increase his velocity and to overcome so many things. It’s allowed him to take information, be disciplined to it and help him develop into the Tigers’ premier starting pitcher.”
Never underestimate that when everything is stripped away, baseball, for better or worse, is a game played by human beings and a business run by human beings. And relationships are gold.
Avila, Chadd, Pleis, Orr, these men have worked together for two-plus decades. And the wealth of relationships they’ve developed over the years with scouts, college coaches, independent talent evaluators and agents has proven to be invaluable.
Orr’s longtime relationship with Joe Jimenez’s handlers enabled the Tigers to sign him for just $100,000 when he went undrafted out of Puerto Rico. Orr’s friendship with Florida baseball coach Kevin O'Sullivan first put him on the trail of Riley Greene. Avila’s relationship with LSU coach Paul Mainieri has helped steer several players into the Tigers organization, the latest being JaCoby Jones. Chadd’s relationship with longtime SEC baseball coach Todd Butler, who is now at Missouri, has led to the drafting of Alex Avila, Drew Smyly and James McCann, among others.
“I don’t think every team has relationships with these advisers like we do,” Orr said. “I’m not saying we’re the only one. There’s 30 clubs out there. But I bet Scott Boras wouldn’t be calling all 29 other teams. And it’s not easy to make those relationships.
“It’s not something you just come across. It takes time to build that kind of trust. Those kinds of relationships are special.”
And every now and then, it helps you to outkick the coverage on a ninth-round pick who ends up at the top of your prospect list in a year.