After months of self-reflection, Turnbull is ready to roll

February 15th, 2023

LAKELAND, Fla. -- The greatest gem has authored in his career was the no-hitter he tossed against Seattle on May 18, 2021. He has pitched just three games since then thanks to Tommy John surgery two months later.

As he prepares to return to game action this spring for the first time since then, he was asked what he learned about himself in the 16-month process to get back.

“I could write a book [about that], probably,” Turnbull said. “But I’ll hold off for now.”

The abridged version is that Turnbull learned about patience. It was never his strength as he crossed four Minor League levels to reach Detroit in 2018, then secured a rotation spot amidst the frustration of a 3-17 season, then became a frontline starter. But with nothing but a rehab schedule as his competition last year, there wasn’t a choice. He had to hit the brakes, and he eventually filled the time by getting introspective.

“Being forced to learn patience, being forced to learn a little bit more about who I am outside of baseball,” Turnbull said. “It’s easy to get wrapped in your talent and what you can do. When it’s taken away from you for a while, you kind of have to look yourself in the mirror and be like, ‘All right, who am I as a person, outside of baseball?’

“You’re quickly faced with a lot more of your shortcomings that start to come out. And you’re like, ‘OK, I could work on a few things and become a little bit better of a man.’ You have a lot of downtime, and it gets hard. You can get depressed. You can stay anxious and fearful a lot. I’ve had to battle a lot of that over the last year and a half, but I’ve learned a lot about myself -- a lot of therapy, a lot of workouts, a lot of monotonous stuff. But I feel good.”

Mercifully, it wasn’t all introspection and self-critique for him.

“A lot of Netflix,” he said with a laugh. “A lot of Netflix. I probably could’ve read a few more books. It gets lonely sometimes. It’s like, ‘Man, I miss the guys. I miss competing.’ It’s such a big part of your life for so long.”

He won’t have to wait much longer. Turnbull has already been cleared to pitch, and he has been throwing bullpen sessions for much of the offseason between Lakeland and his winter home in Charlotte, most recently Sunday at the Tigertown complex. He’ll throw a more formal session on Friday, then gear up for live batting practice next week. If all goes well, he can slot into the Tigers' rotation for the first time since June 2021.

“I think probably once I get back into games, I’ll start to really feel comfortable again, competing again,” Turnbull said. “And that’s probably when the emotions will come.”

Said manager A.J. Hinch: “He’s in a great place.”

That said, Turnbull said Hinch told him he’ll probably get extra rest at different points of camp, taking advantage of the first normal Spring Training Detroit has had since 2019.

Considering the number of potential starters the Tigers have in their camp, they won’t be pressed to fill the innings.

His pitches, Turnbull said, are coming along.

“My stuff’s there right now,” he said. “I’m sure the velocity will start ticking back up as I start getting the adrenaline rush in games, but I’ve been like 92 [mph] in my bullpens, so it’s been pretty close. …

“As soon as I put my cleats back on and got in the dirt, a lot of pitch shapes really got sharper. The cut and sink is all back. My curveball feels better, changeup feels better. Slider’s about what it was.”

The slider was a devastating pitch for Turnbull before the injury: Opponents hit just 11-for-51 against it in 2021 with a 37.6 percent whiff rate, according to Statcast. The pitch was even tougher in '20, with a .151 average and a 43.1 percent whiff rate. His high-velocity, high-spin fastball was just as effective (.203 batting average in '21, .198 in '20), but with a lower swing-and-miss rate.

Pitchers come back differently from Tommy John surgery. Michael Fulmer returns as a slider-heavy reliever, but Joey Wentz actually gained fastball velocity and joined the Tigers' rotation down the stretch last year. Whatever happens, the 30-year-old Turnbull knows who he is, and it isn’t completely defined by his pitch selection.