Detroit Tigers: Tarik Skubal still under construction

Tarik Skubal took the hill for the Detroit Tigers versus the Chicago Cubs on Friday looking to continue the the construction of his big league career by building off a solid start last weekend against the Minnesota Twins. Things didn’t go quite as smoothly this time for Skubal.

With the mild outcry to Skubal based on these six performances it does seems early for a DEFCON 2 alert.

After a very impressive first inning where he set the Cubs down in order with two strikeouts and a foul out to the catcher, Skubal ran into trouble at various points over the next five innings.

Ultimately he’d give up eight hits, a lone walk and a hit batter on his way to allowing four earned runs on the night. The limited Detroit Tigers offense was unable to counter those four runs on the night.

The positives were there. Skubal kept a lid on the damage by only allowing the 4 runs on a night where the Cubs were making solid contact. He struck out five while only walking one.

The backbreaking moment really came on a beautiful pitch by Skubal. Javier Baez had a bat disintegrate in his hands via Skubal’s change up. However, the infield was playing in and the outfield was quite deep. This chasm in the defense let the Baez bloop seemingly hang in the air forever in shallow centerfield but still find grass when Jacoby Jones elected to not dive for it. Kris Bryant trotted home.

On the night, Cubs lefty bats Jason Heyward, Joc Pederson and Anthony Rizzo would all make loud contact versus Skubal, continuing a troubling trend for the Tigers southpaw. After dominating lefties in his 2020 debut to the tune of a .136/.208/.136 clip, Skubal has seen it balloon badly to .258/.366/.355 after a month plus in 2021.

All batters, not just lefties, are laying off Skubal’s pitches out of the zone this season. Skubal has seen a 33% drop in opposing hitters chasing non-strike pitches. This has had obvious corresponding reactions of a reduced K-rate and a significantly higher BB-rate.

Certainly there are more numbers anyone can dissect at Fangraphs and Baseball Savant. Most of them aren’t good. Check out his below average numbers on how much each pitch drops. He’s off league average often, which suggests his pitches are a bit flat. He’s struggling and most numbers look poor. Skubal even has a somewhat low BABIP (.264) and a very high LOB% (82.8%)…things could be worse!

The question to be asked is…what’s next? The talk of the Detroit Tigers sending him down to figure it out in Triple A is growing. It’s a predictable idea and certainly not without some merit. It would be no real shame if Skubal goes to the bushes for a while. But is it necessary?

Skubal zipped through the minors and only encountered token resistance to his mix of pitches. He skipped over a stop in Toledo in ‘20, came to Detroit and, for what it’s worth, out-pitched Casey Mize in most respects in their respective debut MLB campaigns.

Minor league hitting wasn’t a challenge for him. He’s hitting his first brick wall in MLB and finding out just how many big leaguers can take him deep, as his 20+% HR-rate shows. Unless it can be shown Skubal is being completely crushed mentally by the string of beatings, or there is a two-start tune up in mind to right the ship, it seems like a panic move to start jerking him around now.

The team has no expectations of contending. None. Sorry, Mr. Ilitch. They can afford to give Skubal games. If the Detroit Tigers were in the thick of playoff contention Skubal might be in the minors all year and certainly would be now. They wouldn’t need to the MLB rotation to double as a freshman study hall. Right now, that’s what it is. Skubal is there every day.

The Tigers can let him benefit directly from learning to locate his fastball against the best hitters in the world. As an extreme fly ball pitcher it’s likely homers will always be a challenge in some respects. For Skubal, however, it’s getting ugly early on the HR front. He needs to work on his location to lefties and he must figure out a pitch mix that keeps righties at bay. Last year’s change up is now being called a splitter. No matter what it’s called, it needs work. Where will Skubal do it?

The Detroit Tigers hired pitching coach Chris Fetter to iron out the young prospects. Skubal is at front of the list now. It’s been a rocky go of it. Fetter is likely best used exerting his influence on Skubal in person. Checking in with him via Zoom or watching his starts on an iPad seems unnecessary. Skubal and Fetter are in a room together every day right now. Perhaps folks should let them figure it out…in Detroit.

Another little inconvenient fact. Detroit doesn’t have pitching as currently staffed to pressure Skubal. It’s not quite the Gong Show in the Tigers minors when it comes to pitching. But it only takes a brief look at the MiLB rosters to see there’s not much there.

Knowing how these things work, Skubal will probably be sent down by Monday. But he shouldn’t be. Skubal can look to finish his highway to success construction project in Detroit (where the roads are great. No? No?). It’s the best place for him. He’ll face the best. He’ll hopefully learn to keep the ball in the park a bit more often. He’ll use his fastball/slider/cutter mix to start quieting down lefty bats. The best place to learn to get MLB hitters out is in MLB if a pitcher has the requisite talent.

Skubal has the talent. The team can give him chances because they don’t have to win now. They don’t have great options to replace him. Skubal stays in Detroit and keeps building his game.

Friday night was actually good in one respect. He didn’t cave in after adversity. He came back and got through the sixth inning. This speaks to his competitiveness and where his mindset might be. He’s not falling apart mentally from six weeks of struggle.

Tarik Skubal is a Detroit Tiger and should remain one. The Mud Hens uniform wouldn’t look good on him anyhow.