There are many ways to build a baseball team, and if I had to classify the method Detroit Tigers are employing, I would call it the “homegrown pitching” method. Between Casey Mize, Matt Manning and Tarik Skubal, the hope is that at least one, maybe two or hopefully all three can be major league starters. Supplement that with some offensive free agents like Javier Báez or prospects Riley Greene and Spencer Torkelson and you potentially have the next Tigers playoff team.
Skubal was the lowest drafted of the trio, going in the 9th round out of Seattle University. The scouting report from Baseball America in 2018 was an big fastball but average secondary pitches and wildness after coming back from 2017 Tommy John. Skubal proceeded to mow through the minor leagues, and in my opinion, never really saw any adversity.
His first two seasons in the Major League exposed some issues. Specifically, a lot of homeruns allowed along with a bloated platoon split against right handed hitters are a major impediment to Skubal finding success. Skubal talked in early 2021 about his debut with Baseball America and going into pitch design sessions with Driveline. The initial session was rough, with little progress toward a pitch he liked (context in the article makes me think it was a change-up). He came out with a splitter that he felt like it was what he needed and he had teammate/fellow splitter-thrower Casey Mize to consult with.
Fast forward to 2022 and Skubal has ditched that splitter. It wasn’t great in 2021 — he also threw it only 2% of the time— and the shape was similar to his change-up just with a couple more inches of horizontal movement. The movement similarity probably wasn’t the issue for Skubal, it was probably that batters were posting numbers like these against it: 258 wRC+, .539 wOBA and a .583 ISO. Basically, when hitters got on it, they were doing damage.
So far, in 2022? Skubal has one good and one bad start. Though there are some positive periphery stats and pitch outcomes to look at. The good news is that Skubal has not given a homerun up, yet. If we go off his career HR/9 rates, he would’ve probably surrendered two dingers by now. He also has 10 strikeouts to just 1 walk, which could be a sign that he is starting to reign in his wildness. Right now, his BABIP is hovering at .355 with a LOB% of 50 percent, whereas his career rate are .279 and 77.7% respectively. I’d bet on those regressing closer to his career averages in the long run.
Here’s where I believe Skubal has adjusted. Remember how he had worked on a change-up/splitter previously? Well, the change-up that Skubal is using so far in 2022 is different than past iterations. To highlight this, I want to show it relative to his sinker, because I believe they’re related.
Skubal has done two things: he’s added depth and more fade to his change-up. I use the sinker plot to show how pronounced this is but also because I think they’re interconnected. I believe that Skubal made this change as a larger tunneling strategy. Skubal can use the natural velocity difference (~10–12 mph) and the greater depth of his change-up to make the two pitches look identical until the very last second for hitters. I also believe that since Skubal’s change-up was pretty good already (44 wRC+ and 39.6 percent K% against in 2021), that this was meant to aid his sinker. In 2021, hitters posted a 110 wRC+ and 21.7 percent HR/FB% against Skubal’s sinker. In 2022, hitters are down to 80 wRC+, with his K% up 16.7 percent from 10 percent in 2021 and his GB% up to 60% from 50% over the same time. The change-up has maintained it’s performance in 2022 as well. Hitters aren’t doing damage against either pitch.
Now, what happens if we add Skubal’s slider to the above graphs?
The larger tunnel strategy I mentioned above is that second graph. Skubal’s new change-up is matches the slider on the vertical plane and the sinker on the horizontal plane. What I believe this achieves is two pitch combinations that pair together perfectly. The slider and change-up have the same vertical drop until they dart horizontally in opposite directions, whereas the sinker and change-up lineup horizontally until the change-up dives with a lower velocity, and hopefully inducing hitters to swing over it. While Skubal doesn’t use the change-up against left handers, Skubal can deploy all three on right handers and focus on his four-seamer and slider against lefties.
So far, I believe it’s working and can continue to work for Skubal. The returns against right-handed hitters are especially encouraging. He deploys all three pitches against right-handers and so far righties are down to a .333 wOBA from their .346 career average with a GB% up to 40% from a career average of 33.4% and a FB% down to 32% from a career average of 46.4%.
If there’s any reason to doubt, it’s that Skubal still comes in below league average in Barrel%, Average Exity Velocity and several of the x-stats. The flip-side to that is that right now we should focus on comparing Skubal to his previous self and this is a vast improvement, albeit in a small sample.
The Tigers probably aren’t a playoff team in a tough AL Central but there is potential if you look hard enough. It’s made tougher to see with Casey Mize landing on the 10 day injured list, Matt Manning leaving his most recent start early out of precaution and Spencer Turnbull out recovering from Tommy John surgery. Skubal may need to step up to stabilize the rotation with Eduardo Rodríguez and I think he’s adjusted to handle that responsibility.