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Embracing his uniqueness has helped Tigers' Turnbull unleash his talent

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Kansas City, Mo. – Spencer Turnbull is done apologizing for it.

If his quirkiness, his rituals, his mental and physical health regimens, whatever it is that maybe doesn’t conform to somebody else’s idea of professional normalcy, well, too bad. Because if Turnbull learned nothing else in this truncated, outlier of a season, it’s that being true to be himself is the key to unlocking his immense talent.

“I feel like I am more comfortable in my own skin,” Turnbull said after his 11th and final start of the season Friday night. “That dramatically improved this year and it will continue to improve as I continue to establish myself as a starting pitcher in the big leagues and as I continue to have success.”

Spencer Turnbull

The COVID-mandated Zoom interview process is an imperfect way to get at the heart of such matters. You need a personal conversation, not a group interrogation. But for a few years now, Turnbull has heard himself described as “a little out there,” as “his own worst enemy,” as “eccentric and enigmatic,” by coaches and front office people.

Through his mental health work last winter, to overly simplify it, Turnbull learned to embrace his uniqueness, to accept it as a strength and not a weakness.

“The biggest thing is to just stop caring about what everyone thinks about you,” he said. “I felt for so long I had to do all these things I thought everyone else wanted me to do to fit in. The more I’ve been able to be myself, I’ve had so much more success, so much more peace in my mind and in my heart.

“And that has dramatically affected the way I play.”

Don’t misunderstand. Turnbull isn’t advocating anarchy here. But it’s deeper than “Let the kids play.” It’s about being true to yourself and your code.     

“I don’t have to fit into anybody’s boxes,” Turnbull said. “I want to do things the right way, but I don’t want to necessarily conform to somebody else’s idea of what that is, either. I will answer to God for everything I do on and off the field one day.

“So as long as my conscience is clear, I don’t care what anybody thinks.”

Turnbull was by far the Tigers most reliable starting pitcher this season, and that alone is saying something, considering he might have been the most erratic starter last season. He 3.97 ERA and 1.34 WHIP were marked improvements, as was his composure on the mound.

His command was still sketchy, he still pitched in a lot of high-stress, high pitch-count innings but, just like he did Friday night, he was better able to limit damage in most cases.

“There were a lot of positives,” he said, assessing his season. “I’m a competitor so I don’t think I did as well as I’d hoped I would. But I definitely made a lot of improvement. There’s still a lot of room to get better, but overall, I was a lot better for this shortened season.”

Turnbull’s repertoire is a blessing and a curse. A blessing because his fastballs, slider, change-up and curveball are plus-to-elite pitches, and a curse because they all have such extreme movement that it’s difficult to keep them in the strike zone at times.

But there’s no denying their effectiveness. Opponents hit .198 off his four-seam fastball (93-94 mph), .151 with a 43.6 whiff rate off his slider and .211 off his change-up. His sinker, which he runs up there at 95-96 mph, wasn’t a good pitch for him this year (.347) and his curve didn’t show up until his last three starts.

“Pitching-wise, there are some small things I am going to adjust,” he said. “A couple of tweaks, add a couple of things, nothing major. Just getting better command on all my pitches, refining my mechanics and trying to be more consistent.

“I learned a lot this year.”

One thing he wants to do is create more velocity separation between his hard stuff and soft stuff. His change-up is hard (87-88), making his curveball (77-80) his only real off-speed pitch.

“That’s something that wasn’t great this year,” he said. “I want to see what I can do there. But I made a lot of improvement this year. I am really excited about how much I was able to change in just one off-season. But I still have a long way to go.”

Turnbull said he will continue with the same program — fitness, nutrition and wellness — but refining it, throwing out stuff he didn’t find helpful and doubling up on some of the things that clicked for him. But he has seen, maybe for the first time in his life, just how good he can be at the big-league level. And that’s a powerful motivator.

“It’s hard to get too comfortable in this game,” Turnbull said. “As soon as you start to get too comfortable, you get humbled pretty quick. No matter how good you are, there’s always a slice of humble pie waiting for you if you get a little too comfortable or a little too cocky.

“I would have loved to be more consistent, loved to be consistently better. But at the same time, I did reach a lot of the goals I set for myself. So I am excited about that.”

Twitter @cmccosky