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On the cusp: Tigers' Spencer Turnbull poised to ascend to ace status

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Detroit — When those within the baseball industry assess the Tigers' future — evaluators, instructors, coaches, front office personnel — their immediate praise point is the young starting pitching prospects.

Unquestionably, the talented arms and upside of Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal, Matt Manning, and even the injured Alex Faedo and Joey Wentz, form the foundation for this painstaking rebuild.

But let’s be clear here. None of those young pitchers have more talent or upside than 28-year-old Spencer Turnbull. While the prospects are still prospects, Turnbull appears poised to ascend to ace status in the Tigers’ rotation.

“Spencer Turnbull is a guy who often gets overlooked,” manager AJ Hinch said last month. “But he’s done a nice job being a stable major-league pitcher.”

Stable? Turnbull, in 11 starts in 2020, limited opponents to a .198 batting average with his four-seam fastball (93-94 mph on average), .151 with a 43.6% swing-and-miss rate with his slider and .211 with his change-up.

Pretty stingy on the whole.

But that’s not what people typically mean by stable in reference to Turnbull. Back in 2019, his first full season in the big leagues, he struggled to keep his adrenaline and composure in check. He would, too often, be his own worst enemy on the mound. Innings and outings could quickly get away from him.

“If he could just get out of his own way,” former pitcher coach Rick Anderson would often lament.  

But that was then.

Tigers pitcher Spencer Turnbull was 4-4 last season with a 3.97 ERA.

He worked extremely hard last offseason on all facets of his life and game — nutrition, fitness, strength and emotional wellness. He came back in 2020 a much different, more mature competitor on the mound. He had better control of his arsenal and his temperament.

Of his 11 starts, he gave up three runs or less in nine of them. He never had an inning where he gave up more than three runs. 

Don’t get it misconstrued, though. He didn’t turn himself into a zombie. The fire still runs hot. It just didn't burn him as much as it used to.

“Sometimes you get real frustrated and there is nothing you can do to calm yourself down,” he said. “But you can use that. You channel that energy into the next pitch and maybe you throw it a little harder. You use it.”

That’s what he’s learned. Through breathing exercises, by stepping off the mound and refocusing, sometimes by venting in the dugout or in the tunnel between innings, he’s learned to better control his emotions.

“I don’t know if 'tamp it down' is the right way to say it,” Turnbull said. “It’d be more like being in control of yourself. I don’t want to lose my adrenaline. That’s where I get a lot of my energy and power from. But I also don’t want to get out of control.

“I don’t want my mind to speed up. I want to keep my mind quiet but still have all the adrenaline and energy I want to throw as hard as I can and sustain it for a full game.”

Turnbull talks about finding that sweet spot, right on the edge between harnessed and unbridled aggression.

“On a scale of one to 10, I like to be around seven, 7½,” Turnbull said. “If I start getting up to eight, nine or 10, I need to bring it back down. But I don’t want to pitch at four or five. That’s not hyped up enough.

“I just try to keep myself self-regulated and staying in that flow state where you are still really aggressive and hyped up, but not so hyped up that you can’t function.”

Turnbull, like he did last winter, spent time in Seattle working out at the Athletic Training Institute. He uses the same performance coach that Matthew Boyd uses (Devin McKee). He’s maintained the same throwing program he used last offseason, though he’s spent a little extra time working to get his two-seam fastball back in working order.

He expects to make every start, no restrictions. 

“It’s not like you train for a COVID year,” he said. “I am getting ready for a full season, just like I did last year.”

He’s had conversations with both Hinch and new pitching coach Chris Fetter, and he likes what he’s heard from both.

“I’m very excited about the new hires,” he said. “I loved Gardy (former manager Ron Gardenhire) and Andy (Rick Anderson), but things change and things happen. I like the feel of this new direction.”

He was training in Los Angeles on Thursday, and on Friday he will be inducted into the West Michigan Whitecaps Hall of Fame.  

“It’s a huge honor,” he said. “I’ve never been accepted into any Halls of Fame before. I’m pretty excited about it. It's just, it was not easy getting here and it’s not easy staying here. So any kind of recognition you get for that is pretty cool.”

You get the sense there will be a lot more recognition coming Turnbull’s way in 2021. He became the Tigers’ most efficient and reliable starter last year and there’s no reason why he shouldn’t take that banner into spring training next month.

chris.mccosky@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @cmccosky