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After transformative offseason, Tigers' Spencer Turnbull aims for consistency, tranquility

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Lakeland, Fla. – If you just read the words off a transcript, without knowing who was talking, you’d probably guess it was Matthew Boyd. Genetic testing, living an anti-inflammatory lifestyle, whole body connectivity, having his priorities put in proper order after taking a trip to Uganda and witnessing firsthand the horror of child sex trafficking.

“It definitely changes your perspective on stuff and how you look at life.”

Spencer Turnbull warms up Detroit Tigers spring training on Thursday.

This transformative offseason belonged not to Boyd; he had his two years ago. No, this new outlook on life belongs to fellow Tigers starter Spencer Turnbull, who joined Boyd for a visit to the Kingdom Home in Uganda in December, where victims of the child sex trade are protected, nurtured and educated.

“I don’t want to say I was surprised, but to see what Matt and his wife (Ashley) are doing and the impact they are already having, I mean it was amazing to see what one person could do,” Turnbull said. “I was inspired by that.”

Although Turnbull balked at the notion that he sounds a lot like Boyd – “I am still the unique creature God created me to be,” he said – he has benefited greatly from his council, on the field and off the field.

“This whole offseason was kind of a research and development approach,” said Turnbull, who is coming off a turbulent, 17-loss rookie season. “I learned a lot. I don’t have it figured out all the way, but I learned some things to help me move forward.”

For starters, he hired Boyd’s performance coach, Devin McKee, out of the Athletic Training Institute in Bellevue, Wash. He’s had his diet and workout program built around his genetic testing, as Boyd did two years ago.

“I’m just trying to be more calm, more present, and more aware,” he said. “I’ve got a lot of growing to do in a lot of areas, but I am working on some stuff.”

This root of this transformation goes back to the middle of last season when Turnbull couldn’t seem to get out of his own way. Over his first 14 starts he posted a 2.78 ERA and was getting early buzz as a rookie of the year candidate.

His next 12 starts were miserable, an ERA over 7.0 and opponents hitting .308 and slugging .508 against him. He lasted five innings or less in seven of those starts. He was on the injured list twice with shoulder and back soreness. His temperament on the mound was, like his pitches, all over the map.

Both manager Ron Gardenhire and pitching coach Rick Anderson were at wits end trying to find a way to reign him back in. Nothing was working. Nothing was getting through. So Anderson called on Boyd.

“Spencer was hearing it from so many of his coaches, I just said, ‘Matty, you got him,’” Anderson said. “Sometimes you learn more from your peers than me pounding on you every day.”

And, as Anderson pointed out, he was pounding on him about something just about every day.

“It was like, ‘Bull, you gotta be on time for your bullpen. Bull, you gotta be on time for the meeting.’ It was constant,” Anderson said. “What did you do for your work? Just all the learning things. So hopefully he picked up a lot of things about what it takes to be consistent and to be a Major League pitcher.”

Spencer Turnbull: “This whole offseason was kind of a research and development approach.”

Seems Turnbull was more receptive to that message coming from Boyd and his teammates.

"It wasn't anything I did,” Boyd said. “With the success he had and everything that he has going for him, he was just picking my brain. I'd just tell him what I do and the thought process behind what I do."

Turnbull asked about everything from pitching to diet to preparation and routine.

“He'd ask me why do I do this sort of thing and why did I do that?” Boyd said. “I just tried to help him with that. It was pitching, off-the-field stuff. What was your daily routine? How do you prepare for a game? How do you physically prepare? What do you do eating-wise?

“He asked questions and I just poured it all out. He could take whatever he wanted to take."

From the look of him – Turnbull has toned up his body while building strength in core muscles – and the sound of him so far this spring, he took a lot.

“I wanted to be able to move better, full-body movement,” Turnbull said. “I wanted to make sure my mobility was right instead of trying to get strong right off the bat. Instead of lifting heavy weights right away, I worked on ankle and hip mobility, things like that.

“The focus was on durability. Do things so my arm doesn’t take all the stress through the whole season. It was just a matter of looking at some places where I was inefficient in my movement, work on that first and then build strength from there.”

The goal, of course, is not only to stay healthy, but also to quiet his mechanics and his emotions on the mound and let his immense talent do the work it’s meant to do. Which he seemed to have gotten back to by the end of the season.

In his last three starts, Turnbull posted a 3.31 ERA, with 20 strikeouts and just three walks in 16.1 innings, holding opposing hitters to a .238 batting average.

“It was a positive year, overall,” he said. “It definitely didn’t go the way I wanted it to. But I was up in the big leagues all year and that wasn’t even in the picture at the start of training camp last year. From where I started to where I finished, I think I realized the goals I set.

“My performance wasn’t what I wanted all year, but I tried to keep myself up. I learned a lot. Now I have to move forward and try to get better.”

Anderson called the change in Turnbull’s physique awesome.

“I patted him on the stomach and it was solid, when it used to be like mine,” he said, laughing.

Boyd, too, was impressed.

"It got to the point where he realized he had to, that it was time to change,” Boyd said. “He picked my brain. He picked Zimm's brain (Jordan Zimmermann). He picked a lot of guys' brains – Tyson Ross, when he was here. He was just trying to figure out what was going on. What can I do better?

“And I tried to say, 'This is what I think you need to change.' And over the course of the season, over the whole six months, I think he made good changes."

Boyd, though, said repeatedly that he just provided information and suggestions. It was Turnbull who committed to the process and did the work.

"It's always an evolution and he's in the process of it right now,” Boyd said. “The offseason is the time you can get ahead or you can fall behind. I think philosophically he's made some good changes. It doesn't always equate to results, but he might be a better person and a better ballplayer because of it."

Twitter @cmccosky