Attitude adjustment: Tigers' Tarik Skubal trying to get back on attack

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
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Houston — Numbers don’t necessarily lie, but they can misdirect you from the truth sometimes.

The metrics from Tarik Skubal’s last start against the Indians were somewhat alarming, as was his performance. The average velocity on his fastball, which stayed in the 95-96 mph range last year and through spring training dropped to 93.5 and the velocity range expanded from 91-95 mph.

Tigers pitcher Tarik Skubal will carry a 7.71 ERA into Thursday's start at the Oakland Athletics.

On top of that, the spin rates were down on his fastball, curve and slider.

All of which prompted Skubal, after giving up three homers and six runs in four innings, to say, “That’s not who I am.” It also prompted immediate concern for Skubal’s health.

“I’m as healthy as I can be,” said Skubal who will be on the mound Thursday night in Oakland in the first of four games against the Athletics.

He said his mechanics were sound, too.

The issue wasn’t physical at all, Skubal said. It was mental.

“Just being more aggressive and getting down the mound the way I want to,” he said. “That’s when I’m at my best. When I’m aggressive and going at guys, seeing the (catcher’s) glove and attacking it. That’s what I’m going to get back to doing. That’s where I’m at mentally, too.”

Skubal said his between-starts work was encouraging. His said his velocity and other metrics were where they’re supposed to be. But again, throwing to a catcher in an empty bullpen isn’t the same as facing big-league hitters in an enemy ballpark.

“The numbers were down; I looked at that and addressed it,” Skubal said. “It’s just aggression. Once I get back to being aggressive and attacking the glove, everything else figures itself out.”

At the core of this is confidence and trust. Skubal has battled his command in his two starts, just as he did at times last season. He needed 87 pitches to get through 5.1 innings against the Indians in his first start and was at 75 and done after four in Cleveland.

“Tarik is an aggressive-mindset pitcher,” manager AJ Hinch said. “I do think easing off that isn't a good thing for him. He needs to ramp up to be effective and be that intimidating force.”

Hinch and pitching coach Chris Fetter are data-centric in a lot of ways, but they are also conscious of having a balance between analysis and paralysis.

“You can be a prisoner to some of the data if you’re not careful,” Hinch said. “It’s important. It’s a gauge. It’s interesting. But I don’t know that it needs to be identified every single pitch and force us to react to it. Tarik is trying to throw strikes and he’ll ease off the gas pedal a little bit.

“But now we have characteristics on every pitch and we over-analyze everything as an industry and it causes a lot of reaction. The bottom line is, we’ve got to get hitters out and hitters don’t care about the data.”

Hinch isn’t downplaying the analysis and data, just pointing out how best to apply it.

“It’s an analysis that should be done and we pay attention to it so we can get his best stuff out of him,” Hinch said. “But I don’t want our guys fixated on an analysis that’s all of a sudden going to change their mental approach.”

If Skubal needed a reminder of what full-on aggressive pitching looks like, he got it in this series watching both Casey Mize and Matthew Boyd go after the Astros.

“Casey just went right at them and let his stuff play,” Skubal said. “He executed his pitches in the strike zone and expanded the zone when he got them in swing mode. It was fun for me to watch that.

"I felt like I went to the restroom in the first inning and when I came back he was already through the fifth. I was like, ‘Wow, he’s going right at guys.’ And Boyd did the same thing.”

That’s what annoyed him about his own performance in Cleveland. The results didn’t bother him as much as his poor mindset and approach.

“I was frustrated with how I competed,” Skubal said. “When I got done I just felt like I wasn’t where I needed to be mentally and I wasn’t being as aggressive as I need to be. That’s where I got frustrated with myself.”

Mental health day

Hinch gave Willi Castro a breather on Wednesday. It was the shortstop’s first day off of the season and it came at a strategic time. He’s been fighting it at the plate (9 for 46 with just one extra base hit and one RBI, with 12 strikeouts).

“He’s somewhat frustrated like all hitters get when they make a few outs in a row,” Hinch said. “But he’ll be back in there tomorrow. This will be a good mental day for him to take a deep breath and start fresh in Oakland.”

Hinch, who had planned to give Niko Goodrum a start at shortstop at some point on this trip regardless of how Castro was hitting, was asked if he’d thought about moving Castro down in the order to maybe take some of the pressure off him.

“No,” he said. “Willi is one of our good hitters and it’s a super small sample size. It’s not a pressure thing, it’s just execution. It’s a tough league and sometimes you get in these ruts where you don’t find hits. And sometimes you need a break.”

Around the horn

Hinch said Miguel Cabrera (biceps strain) was in good spirits and maintaining his rehab program. There is a chance he could get some on-field work in Oakland but it’s more likely he won’t really ramp up his swing progression until the Tigers get home next week.

… With a barrage of eight home runs in the first two games in Houston, the Tigers went into play Wednesday leading the American League with 19. They were second only to the Reds (20) in the majors. This is the most dingers a Tigers squad has hit in the first 11 games since the 2006 team bashed 25.

… Leading the charge is catcher Wilson Ramos, whose six homers was tops in baseball going into play Wednesday. He also led baseball in average exit velocity (100.2 mph) and was fifth in slugging percentage (.875), seventh in extra-base hits (seven) and eighth in total bases (28). The last American League player with more than six home runs in his first nine games of the season was Detroit's Chris Shelton, who had seven in his first nine games in 2006.

On deck: Tigers at Athletics

Series: Four games at RingCentral Coliseum, Oakland, California

First pitch: Thursday-Friday — 9:40 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday — 4:07 p.m.

TV/radio: Thursday-Friday — BSDet-plus, 97.1 FM; Saturday-Sunday — BSDet, 97.1

Probables: Thursday — LHP Tarik Skubal (0-1, 7.71) vs. LHP Sean Manaea (0-1, 5.06); Friday — RHP Jose Urena (0-2, 8.22) vs. RHP Frankie Montas (1-1, 8.31); Saturday — RHP Casey Mize (1-0, 0.82) vs. LHP Cole Irvin (0-2, 7.45); Sunday — LHP Matthew Boyd (2-1, 1.86) vs. RHP Chris Bassitt (1-2, 4.96).

Skubal, Tigers: There’s some concern here early, only because his pitch metrics are off from his own standards. The velocity and spin rate were down on his fastball against the Indians in his last start, which resulted in a six-run, three-home run outing. Skubal insisted the only adjustment to be made was mental — he needed to trust his stuff and attack more.

Manaea, Athletics: His first two starts were against the Astros — and after giving up five runs in 4.2 innings in Oakland, he stifled the Astros at Minute Made Park, limiting them to a run in six innings. He’s a sinker-changeup pitcher for the most part, mixing in a curveball. He’s got a 33% whiff rate with his changeup.

chris.mccosky@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @cmccosky

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