Detroit — Invariably, there will be a point during his start when Tigers rookie Spencer Turnbull will come back to the dugout, pull pitching coach Rick Anderson aside, and start talking about how his mechanics felt off, his front shoulder might’ve been flying open and his arm was lagging — how he just felt off.
And it’s at the point when Anderson will first resist the urge to scream, then resist the urge to order hypnosis for his hyper-vigilant pitcher and then, as calmly as he can, essentially give him the Crash Davis line from "Bull Durham" — "Don’t think, it can only hurt the ballclub."
“I tell him, ‘Just throw the ball,’” Anderson said. “How the hell can you compete in a game and focus on a pitch and location when you are thinking about mechanics? Just see the glove and be aggressive and let it go. Quit thinking about mechanics.
“If you are thinking about mechanics all the time, it’s going to be inconsistent.”
This is the root of Turnbull’s struggles over the second half of the season. He had a dead-arm period and some back issues, too, but the crux of his problems, Anderson fully believes, is mental.
“He’s overthinking,” Anderson said. “If you take his season and divide it in half, early in the season he was just attacking hitters. Hell, he didn’t even know if some of them were right-handed or left-handed. He just attacked them.”
Turnbull, who will make his 26th start of the season Friday in Oakland, had a 2.78 ERA in his first 14 starts and was on the fringe of the Rookie of the Year chatter. Opponents were hitting just .234, slugging .353 and had an OPS of .670. He had roughly a 3-1 strikeout-to-walk rate.
In the 11 starts since, the ERA (7.17) and the opponents’ slash-line (.312/.397/.524 with a .921 OPS) has ballooned. The Tigers have lost the last 13 times he’s taken the mound and on Sunday he became the first pitcher this season to amass 14 losses.
“Now all of a sudden, he’s been around the league a little bit and he’s changed his approach,” Anderson said. “He’s doing what we want him to; you want him to study hitters and be prepared, but instead of staying with his strengths and attacking hitters, he’s trying to make the perfect pitch.
“He’s never done that in his life. His whole thing is, he’s got stuff. He’s got to be aggressive in the strike zone and let his stuff work for him.”
What’s happened, Anderson said, is by trying to be too fine and work the edges of the plate, Turnbull has consistently got himself into hitter-friendly counts.
“He’s trying to make perfect pitches, then it’s ball one, ball two and he’s having a tough time,” Anderson said. “He’ll come in and say, ’They’re hitting my pitches.’ Well, you look at the count and he’s behind in the count and he has to come in there.”
The numbers are graphic in defense of Anderson’s point:
► Batter ahead in count: 208 plate appearances, .299/.476/.455, .931 OPS.
► Turnbull ahead in count: 152 plate appearances, .177/.197/.279, .476 OPS.
In 194 plate appearances with the count even, opponents are hitting .306. Eleven of the 13 home runs Turnbull has allowed have been with the count even or in the batters’ favor.
“We try to do stuff in the bullpen, things to help him keep it simple,” Anderson said. “We tell him to take your time, focus and relax. But then he’ll start warming up too quick and I’ll say, ‘Slow down, think about what you’re doing.’
“There are other times when he’s very good with it. It’s just consistency of what he does. He just has to find it.”
Manager Ron Gardenhire, Anderson and Turnbull have been peppered with questions about Turnbull’s health, physical health. His pitches over the last month, though his fastball velocity has stayed constant at 93-94 mph, haven’t had the same crispness or bite they had earlier in the year — particularly his sinker and slider.
“I don't know, honestly,” Turnbull said when asked if his struggles were mental or physical. “Maybe a little something physical, but it could be a mental thing, too. It's probably a combination of both.”
Pressed about how he was feeling physically, he said, “I'm all right. I'm probably not as fresh as I was in the beginning of the year, but no one is. Nothing really bothered me or anything. Just frustrating, just kind of getting out of my rhythm or whatever it is.
“Just not quite as sharp in one of those innings and it just keeps blowing up on me. I'm just trying to figure out what it is and fix it.”
Anderson said the stuff is still there, but Turnbull doesn’t trust it as much as he did earlier in the season.
“If you are aggressive and you just throw the ball, and not try to place the ball, your stuff is going to have life to it,” he said. “If you are out there thinking you have to hit that certain spot, then you don’t finish the pitch half the time and you’re not throwing the ball with conviction. You’re not letting it rip.
“When you are just trying to place your pitches and feel for your pitches, you’re not going to have movement or consistent command.”
Turnbull’s mechanics have become as inconsistent as his pitches. Watching film, Anderson sees Turnbull on top of his fastball, on the side of his slider and underneath his curveball — different arm slot for every pitch. Sometimes it changes on the same pitch.
“He’s trying to manipulate the pitch instead of trusting it and letting it work for him,” Anderson said. “We tell him, ‘Don’t manipulate it. Don’t change your arm level to try and manipulate a pitch. Keep the same arm slot with all of them and be aggressive with it.’
“When you try to place the ball and not let it fly, you aren’t going to have the same command and movement, or velocity.”
Before his start Sunday against the Twins, Anderson didn’t go over hitters with him.
“I told him all I wanted him to do is attack the hitter, I don’t care who it is,” Anderson said.
Turnbull pitched a clean first inning, his first in three starts, but then was mugged in a five-run, 10-batter second inning.
“It’s got to come from within,” Anderson said. “That maturity, or whatever you want to call it, it’s got to come from within.”
For what it’s worth, Turnbull’s bullpen session Tuesday was electric.
“He was just letting it fly to the spot,” Anderson said. “I asked him how many times did you think about mechanics, and he said maybe twice. And I told him, ‘There you go. This was one of your best pens of the whole year and you just got the ball and let it fly.’
“He’s got too good of stuff to be going through what he’s going through. But the mind is a powerful thing. It can cause some problems.”
Tigers at Royals
►First pitch: 1:15 Thursday, Kauffman Stadium, Kansas City, Mo.
►LHP Matthew Boyd (7-10. 4.58), Tigers: This will be his fifth start against the Royals, and it’s mostly not gone well for him. Only the White Sox have hit him harder (.292 to .284) and his 1.597 WHIP is the highest among teams he’s faced more than once.
►RHP Glenn Sparkman (3-10, 5.86), Royals: He’s had a rough go of late. Eight straight losses in games he started, 8.26 ERA, .327 opponents’ batting average, .583 slugging. He’s allowed 10 home runs in 40 innings over that stretch.