DETROIT -- The Tigers believe in Tarik Skubal. They saw the dominant, confident left-hander in Spring Training just a couple of months ago. They saw the ninth-round Draft pick force his way into Detroit’s plans while rocketing up prospect lists with a stingy first full season up the farm system in 2019.
They also see the way he prepares at this level for each start.
“Yesterday, we were in the dugout and we were talking,” catcher Jake Rogers said after Friday’s 4-2 loss to the Cubs at Comerica Park. “We knew we were facing the Cubs [next], and Skoob had the iPad out looking at Cubs hitters against left-handed pitching. He studies a lot, he looks at hitters and we were talking the whole time. I’d look over every once in a while when I wasn’t watching the game and just see a couple of pitches and he’d be like, ‘OK, that’s how they got [Anthony] Rizzo.’”
Rogers had been promoted to Triple-A Toledo by the time Skubal joined Double-A Erie’s dominant rotation in 2019, but they worked together in Toledo last summer, and for two Spring Trainings. The work ethic is there, Rogers said, but so is the stuff.
“He is showing little glimpses of what he can do,” manager A.J. Hinch said.
The first four Cubs batters Friday was a glimpse, as was the last few innings of Skubal's previous start against the Twins. There aren’t complete outings just yet, nor are there results, and that’s the frustrating part.
For now, Skubal is 0-6, the second Tigers starter to do that in three years. Jordan Zimmermann went 0-8 in his first 13 outings of 2019 before picking up his first win that July. Before that, the last Tigers pitchers to go 0-6 were Mike Maroth and Adam Bernero in 2003.
Zimmermann’s struggles came near the end of his career, which officially closed with his retirement this week. Maroth remains baseball’s last pitcher to lose 20 games in a season, but he rebounded to win 25 games over the next two seasons and earn 50 victories as a Tiger.
Neither Zimmermann nor Maroth had the stuff that Skubal can throw, which is what makes Skubal’s learning curve seem inevitable at age 24, even if that turn is requiring patience.
“Good or bad, it’s always something to learn from,” Skubal said. “Just being able to acknowledge what’s going on or what I felt like and continue to work on that and continue to get better and better each day, I think, is what I love about this game.”
For four batters Friday night, Skubal looked like that dominant starter Detroit saw in Spring Training, overpowering Cubs batters for three strikeouts and a popout behind home plate. His 96 mph fastball froze leadoff batter Willson Contreras after a swing and miss at one on the previous pitch. Skubal followed another 96 mph fastball with a curveball that sent Kris Bryant down swinging, fouling it into Rogers’ glove. Once Javier Báez whiffed on another 96 mph fastball for a strikeout to begin the second inning, the socially distanced crowd at Comerica Park roared in anticipation of a gem.
But much like the Cubbies turned on fellow youngster Casey Mize’s splitter after a first look last summer, they caught up with Skubal’s fastball-slider combination. Skubal gave up eight balls in play with exit velocities harder than 100 miles per hour over his next 17 batters, according to Statcast. Bryant’s opposite-field two-run homer in the third inning was the softest of the group at 100.7 mph, but Contreras’ groundball single before that was at 114 mph. Jason Heyward’s leadoff double in the fifth was a 115 mph line drive.
“I think the middle part of the game, he was a little tentative and started to guide the ball just a little bit,” Hinch said.
While Skubal’s fastball hit 97 mph, the Cubs averaged 98 mph in exit velocity against the heater. Skubal’s slider averaged a 97 mph exit velo. Bryant’s homer was Skubal’s 11th allowed this season, tying him for the Major League lead.
Hinch gave Skubal a developmental inning in the sixth, allowing him to finish strong by retiring the final five batters he faced. When he was done, they talked about throwing with conviction, not just execution.
“I need to do a better job of staying locked in and not letting other thoughts creep into my mind,” Skubal said. “Just really stay focused on every single pitch. That’s just where I need to be mentally.”