Adjust or bust: For Tigers' Tarik Skubal, pitch mix still a work in progress
Detroit — It must’ve felt like getting a new, shiny toy for Christmas and then having someone tell you not to play with it.
Tigers rookie Tarik Skubal went to Driveline Baseball in Kent, Washington, this winter and in the span of two days learned and added a split-fingered fastball to his repertoire. He’d been searching and searching for an effective off-speed pitch and traditional change-ups weren’t working for him.
The splitter felt like a revelation.
Except, as he brought it into the regular season, there were side effects. His fastball, his money pitch, wasn't the same. Some of the life, the zip, had gone out of it. Manager AJ Hinch and pitching coach Chris Fetter encouraged him to back off the splitter until he got his fastball back.
“I’m not sure he was getting the hint,” Hinch said with a chuckle before Skubal’s start Friday against the Cubs.
Finally, after several meetings and bullpen sessions, Skubal went back to a more traditional change-up grip, a modified circle-change grip, before his last start against the Twins on May 7. Lo and behold, not only was the change-up effective, but the velocity and life was back on his four-seam fastball.
“He’s trying to feel his way,” Hinch said. “He’s very much an open book. He will work on anything and do anything. So he and Fett, and Juan (Nieves) and myself, all of us were trying to figure out why his stuff was wavering, what pitches were more effective to use than others and why did he abandon the change-up in the first place.
“I understand players are always trying to tweak things and find different ways to be better. But in this instance, I think he’s better suited throwing less splitters and more change-ups because he’s primarily a fastball pitcher and that creates hand speed and the change-up works off of that.”
Against the Twins, Skubal threw 56 four-seamers with a velocity range between 90 and 98.6 mph, with a 93.6 mph average. Off that, he threw 21 change-ups, which, using the traditional grip, was slower — between 78-85 mph. And it had more downward action.
“It’s still got a little splitter action,” Hinch said. “How he’s gripping it may vary, but it’s more of a change-up than a split. When he has good action down, it all looks like a split. Quite honestly, it’s a pretty good pitch.”
For most pitchers, these alterations and adjustments usually take place in the minor leagues. Skubal, because of his elite talent and, frankly, the Tigers’ needs, has to discover himself and create his identity as a pitcher on the fly against big-league competition.
“We are just trying to put one foot in front of the other with him,” Hinch said. “Have him pitch a successful inning that leads to another. He did a great job of finishing his outing last time (with a pair of strikeouts) and I think that’s more important than going in with any sort of goal.”
Love it, loathe it
Before the game, Tigers starting pitchers Matthew Boyd and Jose Urena were on the field, with bats, bunting balls off a pitching machine — a pretty good indication they will be starting when the Tigers travel to Milwaukee and play the Brewers in interleague play at the end of the month.
Both, by the way, looked very natural laying bunts down both baselines. Urena, especially, from his six seasons in Miami, looked to be quite an accomplished bunter.
But it made for a humorous moment in Hinch’s pregame Zoom conference. He was asked if he enjoyed matchups between traditional MLB franchises like the Tigers and Cubs.
“I love playing different teams,” he said. “I love it more in our own ballpark when we can play with a DH and I don’t have to send our pitchers up to bat. So when you ask me that question when we play the Brewers, I am going to tell you I hate interleague play because I don’t want our pitchers to hit.”
Around the horn
Right-handed pitching prospect Franklin Perez, whom the Tigers released off the 40-man roster earlier this week, cleared waivers and was re-signed to a minor league contract.
Perez, one of the three players the Tigers got back for Justin Verlander in 2017, will miss this season after shoulder surgery.
Cubs at Tigers
► First pitch: 4:10 p.m. Saturday, Comerica Park, Detroit
► TV/radio: BSD/97.1
► RHP Trevor Williams (2-2, 5.81), Cubs: He’s been, well, hittable. The hard-hit rate against him is 48.5% and the average exit velocity on balls in play against him is 91.5 mph. His four-seam fastball (91-92) has been the main culprit, with opponents hitting .305 against it. He led the National League in homers allowed in 2020 and he’s allowed six already this year in 31 innings.
► RHP Jose Urena (1-4, 3.60), Tigers: Teams have been loading their lineup with left-handed hitters against him and here’s why: Lefties are hitting .325 (righties .164) and slugging .400 (righties .274). One of the reasons is lefties neutralize one of his best pitches, the slider. He uses change-ups more against lefties.