Works in progress: First full season a 'learning process' for Tigers' Mize, Skubal

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
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Detroit — Fair or not, scrutiny comes with the territory for a big-league player, especially for players who come in with the credentials and hype of Tigers' rookie pitchers Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal.

The scrutiny, intensified these days by the availability and accessibility of data and information, can be dispiriting, distracting and disruptive to young players. And Tigers manager AJ Hinch is doing his level best to shield his young pitchers from it.

“With so much data and information and analysis that goes on a game-by-game basis, we really should shut all that off and do it five-game increments,” Hinch said Thursday. “Let it mature, let it happen over time and not be so reactive to every single game.

Tigers pitcher Tarik Skubal has given up 14 hits and nine earned runs in 16.1 innings this season.

“We get the data, get the information and make a reaction off that. That’s 30 to 32 reactionary events (for a starting pitcher) and we don’t want our pitchers to be that way.”

There’s two dimensions to this season for Mize and Skubal — long term and short term. This season, their first full season in the big leagues, is about development, about acclimating to the highest professional level.

But it's also about competing and trying to win baseball games right now, whenever their turn comes around.

As Hinch and general manager Al Avila have said, though, the ultimate goal for the 2021 season is for Mize and Skubal to get established as big-league pitchers.

“It’s getting them comfortable with a routine and having them understand themselves first,” Hinch said. “We throw a lot of stuff at young pitchers when they first get to the big leagues. But we have to make sure they understand their strengths and what they do and then apply it to the game plan.”

Mize will make his fourth start Friday against the Royals. Skubal has made three starts and on Wednesday made his first appearance out of the bullpen as a tandem starter. Both have made considerable adjustments already.

For Mize, the four-seam fastball has become his primary pitch. The velocity has ticked up nearly 2 mph, sitting at 95 mph. Where last year he mostly pitched off his two-seam sinker, he’s adjusted to throwing more elevated four-seamers. That has allowed him, so far, to get more ground balls and soft contact, especially when he commands his splitter, curveball and slider.

It’s been bumpier for Skubal, who spent a lot of offseason focused on developing a split-changeup. In the process, though, his power fastball has lost some life. The velocity range is 91-95 mph, sitting at 93.9. That’s down from 95-97 mph he was throwing it last year.

“He’s had to make adjustments with getting into better counts,” Hinch said. “He’s a fastball-dominant pitcher who’s trying to find his way inside the strike zone.”

Hinch and pitching coach Chris Fetter have both encouraged him to back off the splitter.

“Tarik is going to throw more curves and sliders as the year progresses and get away from the split,” Hinch said. “And not use his fourth best pitch as much as he’s used it. That’s a learning process for him.”

On Wednesday, Skubal threw 35 four-seamers, 18 sliders and nine splitters. Hinch said that was still too many splitters. Skubal has thrown the pitch 11.5% of the time so far this season.

For the record, Skubal agrees that he needs to back off the pitch, but he does not think the splitter has impacted his fastball.

“I don’t think so,” he said. “I throw it like a fastball. It’s not like I’m trying to manipulate a grip or anything like that. The fastball is not where I want it to be, obviously. I’m just going to continue to work on it and just trust the process.”

Regardless of draft status or prospect status, regardless of the hype they get or the hope they represent, very few players enter the big leagues as finished products. It’s unfair and unrealistic to expect that.

“Being comfortable with your routine, being comfortable with your prep and then the next step is being comfortable with your overall stuff — that is a work in progress for these guys,” Hinch said. “We’re going to see a little success and a little failure; maybe a little more success and then a step back.

“That journey across their first full season in the big leagues is what both are going to have to conquer.”

chris.mccosky@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @cmccosky

On deck: Royals

►Series: Four games at Comerica Park, Detroit

►First pitch: Friday — 7:10 p.m.; Saturday-Monday — 1:10 p.m.

►TV/radio: All games on BSD/97.1; Saturday and Monday also on MLBN

►Probables: Friday — LHP Mike Minor (1-1, 5.17) vs. RHP Casey Mize (1-1, 3.38); Saturday — RHP Brady Singer (0-2, 3.77) vs. LHP Matthew Boyd (2-1, 2.03); Sunday — LHP Danny Duffy (2-1, 0.50) vs. RHP Michael Fulmer (1-1, 3.94); Monday — RHP Brad Keller (1-2, 12.00) vs. RHP Spencer Turnbull (1-0, 1.80).

►Minor, Royals: He has elite spin on his four-seam fastball (2,620 rpms), which means it plays firmer and has more ride up in the zone than a typical 91-mph pitch. That pitch has been kryptonite to a lot of Tigers hitters. This will be just his fourth career start against the Tigers.

►Mize, Tigers: The home run ball got him in Oakland in his last start. The Athletics hit three homers off him in the first two innings. On the whole, though, it’s been an encouraging start to the season for Mize. His fastball velocity is sitting at 95 mph, up 2 mph from last year. And he’s commanding his entire arsenal.

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