'High highs and low lows:' Tigers' Spencer Turnbull sees personal growth through tumult

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
Tigers pitcher Spencer Turnbull is 0-12 in 17 career starts at Comerica Park.

Detroit — Sometimes when he pitches, rookie Spencer Turnbull can be all over the place. But when it comes to self-evaluation, he’s straight to the point.

He was asked, after his strong six innings of work Tuesday against the Twins, what his takeaway would be from this tumultuous first full season in the big leagues. First, he correctly pointed out that it wasn’t over. He likely will get the start Sunday in Chicago in the season finale against the White Sox.

“The biggest thing, this has been a huge learning experience,” he said. “I think I’ve grown a ton as a person and a player.”   

Then he cut to the core.

“I might’ve been a little stubborn, a little youthful-minded at first,” he said. “Too cocky and not open to listening to other guys at first. Then you go through some struggles and you get humbled maybe a little bit more than you expected to.

“I had some really high highs and some really low lows this year. I just have to take the good with the bad, stay steady and keep going.”

Taken as a whole, statistically, it would appear he had more lows than highs. He posted three wins in 29 starts and the club was 7-22 on his day — 4.59 ERA, .272 opponent batting average, a .772 OPS against. He has the dubious honor of being the only pitcher in Major League Baseball history of having the most home starts (17) without a win (0-12).

But the aggregate hides the flashes of dominance he showed, particularly early in the season.

"If he starts reading the paper and seeing the numbers, it could wear on him," manager Ron Gardenhire said Tuesday night. "But if he doesn't pay attention to that stuff and really watch what he's done — he's started all year in the big leagues. It's been a year of experience and it's going to make you grow.

“That's what you've got to look at. He's had ups and downs and he's learned from all of them. The last two or three starts, he's really been throwing the baseball again.”

To get a more accurate read on Turnbull’s season, divide it in three parts.

In his first 14 starts, through June 11, he had a 2.78 ERA, opponent average and OPS of .234 and .670 and the Tigers were 6-8 in those outings.

The trouble came in the next 12 starts: 7.66 ERA, .939 OPS and the Tigers dropping 11 of the 12. In that stretch had two stints on the injured list, one with shoulder fatigue and over the All-Star break, back stiffness.

The low point came against the Twins on Sept. 1 when he was bounced after allowing six runs and eight hits in 4.2 innings. Turnbull was a mess mentally, overthinking, trying to make perfect pitches, getting behind in counts and subsequently getting hit hard having to pitch in too many hitter-friendly counts.

Pitching coach Rick Anderson and Gardenhire both, short of administering a lobotomy, were at a loss to get Turnbull to just trust his stuff and pitch.

“If you take his season and divide it in half, early in the season he was just attacking hitters,” Anderson said in an interview with The News. “Hell, he didn’t even know if some of them were right-handed or left-handed. He just attacked them.

“Now all of a sudden, he’s been around the league a little bit and he’s changed his approach. 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.”

Turnbull has heeded that message, at last. His last three starts have been encouraging, especially Tuesday, when he blanked the Twins on four hits through six innings before giving up two hits before departing in the seventh.

His four-seam and two-seam fastballs were lively, ringing the radar gun between 95-97 mph and he used all three of his secondary pitches — slider, curve and change-up. There were many starts when he struggled to have one secondary pitching working. 

“He got the sign, he reared back and threw to the glove,” Gardenhire said. “He just picked up the sign and attacked. That’s what he’s got to do. Just clear all the other BS out of his head. He overthinks way too many situations, always has.

“But he didn’t last time out. He got the ball and attacked the hitter. And he was good.”

When, or if, he looks back on the numbers of his first full season in the big leagues, hopefully Turnbull will focus on his 2.7 WAR, third best among big-league rookie starters behind Atlanta’s Mike Soroka (3.9) and Baltimore’s John Means (3.0). And his park-adjusted ERA is 105, the same as Tigers ace Matthew Boyd.

 “I definitely think I’m a better pitcher, especially mentally,” Turnbull said. “Nobody feels particularly great this time of year, but I’ve learned to pitch through a lot of that stuff and just get the most out of what I have that day.”

Twins at Tigers

First pitch: 1:10 p.m. Thursday, Comerica Park, Detroit

TV/radio: Fox Sports Detroit/97.1 FM

Scouting report

► The Twins have yet to name a starting pitcher for Thursday's game.

► RHP Jordan Zimmermann (1-12, 6.85): He’s coming off a dreadful start against the White Sox (nine runs, 11 hits in 3.2 innings) and he’s threatening to knock Art “Hard Luck” Houtteman out of the Tigers’ record book. He and Houtteman presently are the only two pitchers in club history to win two games or fewer with at least 20 starts. Houtteman was 2-16 in 1948.


Twitter: @cmccosky