Detroit Tigers: How Spencer Turnbull threw his no-hitter

May 18, 2021 - Spencer Turnbull and Eric Haase walk back to the dugout : Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports
May 18, 2021 - Spencer Turnbull and Eric Haase walk back to the dugout : Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports /

Last night Spencer Turnbull authored one of the finest pitching performances in Detroit Tigers history. Rogelio offered this recap right after it happened, and a bit later Yoop touched on the historical aspect of Turnbull’s achievement, as well as the general nature of baseball magic.

But what I want to do is dig into the nuts of bolts of what allowed Spencer Turnbull to throw the 8th no-hitter in Detroit Tigers history. How did he reach this point in his career, and how exactly did he silence the Seattle Mariners’ bats?

Spencer Turnbull’s History

Spencer Turnbull has always been a bit enigmatic. He was highly regarded coming out of the University of Alabama in 2014, but both Baseball America ($) and MLB Pipeline thought his delivery and below-average command could lead him to the bullpen in pro ball:

"Turnbull has a strong build and the makings of an average changeup, allowing him to project as a mid-rotation starter. His command isn’t nearly as strong as his control, however, so it’s possible he could wind up as a late-inning reliever."

The questions about Turnbull’s ultimate role persisted during his slow climb to the majors. He was a staple on Detroit Tigers prospect lists, but he was rarely in the top ten. He would flash impressive stuff in the minors, but it wasn’t eye-popping, and while his career 3.56 ERA in 427.1 minor-league innings is solid, it doesn’t suggest dominance.

Just about the only thing standing out for Turnbull was his success at avoiding home runs, which is generally viewed as more luck than skill.

Major-league batters haven’t had much trouble hitting the ball hard against Spencer Turnbull, but they still struggled to do damage, and it wasn’t until recently that we truly understood why.

Spencer Turnbull’s Fastball

Big-league hitters are experts at pattern recognition. Genetics help, but mostly it’s the years of repetition allowing their brains to process information that may seem imperceptible to mortals, like a pitcher’s arm speed and release point, or the spin of a particular pitch.

Spencer Turnbull throws a mid-90s fastball, and his secondary pitches show above-average movement. That’s certainly impressive, but it doesn’t make him stand out among his cohort of MLB pitchers.

Spencer Turnbull succeeds because his pitches don’t go where they should.

We first discussed the phenomenon of seam-shifted wake last year, and a short time later learned Spencer Turnbull was one of its foremost practitioners.

Turnbull was essentially a two-pitch pitcher last night. He threw 67 fastballs, 37 sliders, and a handful of changeups and curveballs. That doesn’t seem like a pitch mix that would fool many hitters, even if we split his fastballs into 4-seamers (49) and sinkers (18).

But what makes Spencer Turnbull special is his ability to manipulate the seams of a baseball to drastically change its expected flight path. The best way to show this would be with an overlay, but I lack those skills. Instead, here’s a film reel:

Those nine 4-seam fastballs might not seem remarkable on the surface, but I chose them for a reason. They represent the movement extremes on his 4-seamer last night, with vertical movement ranging from 16-26 inches, and horizontal movement ranging from 7 inches on Turnbull’s arm side, to 3 inches to his glove side.

Again, these are all 4-seam fastballs. They’re all coming from the same arm slot, in a narrow velocity band, with fairly consistent spin rates. The pitches with cutting action — moving toward Turnbull’s glove side — are the easiest for us to see on camera, but to the hitters all these offerings look the same out of Turnbull’s hand, only to end up in wildly different locations.

Turnbull drew 12 swings-and-misses on his 4-seamer last night, tying his career high, and he also induced 12 foul balls with the pitch. Seattle batters simply couldn’t make solid contact because the ball rarely ended up where it was supposed to.

Spencer Turnbull’s Slider

The slider has always been Spencer Turnbull’s best secondary offering, and last night he used it to garner six swings-and-misses. His career high is nine, so it wasn’t exactly a devastating out pitch for him.

But Turnbull earned nine called strikes with the slider last night, easily besting his previous high of six. Was there something special about the pitch last night? Did it break especially late? Was Angel Hernandez handing out a ton of free strikes? Let’s take a look:

Okay, so Angel definitely helped a bit, and Turnbull threw a few front-door sliders that probably weren’t by design. Mariners hitters did swing at the slider 18 times, but they often seemed to be looking for something else. Give credit to catcher Eric Haase for that, but there’s one more thing we need to discuss…

Spencer Turnbull’s Control

Perhaps Spencer Turnbull set a new high for called strikes on his slider because he also threw a career high number of sliders (21) in the strike zone. In fact, throwing more strikes in general has been something of a theme for Turnbull this year.

We touched on the questions about his command above, but stats may help. From his debut in 2018 through last season, Spencer Turnbull walked roughly 9.5% of the batters he faced. Among the 131 starters with at least 220 innings pitched in that span, Turnbull ranked 117th in walk rake. Just 61.1% of his pitches were strikes, which ranked 124th.

But five starts into 2021 and Spencer Turnbull seems like a changed man. There are 125 pitchers who have thrown at least 30 innings this season, and Turnbull’s 5.7% walk rate ranks 27th. Nearly 65% of his pitches have been strikes this year, and four of the best strike-throwing games of his career have all come in the last month.

For what it’s worth, Spencer Turnbull said he made some recent mechanical adjustments while playing catch with his dad. Here at MCB we believe in the power of playing catch with dad, but we also suspect Chris Fetter and/or A.J. Hinch have also had a sizable impact.

Tigers starters are averaging 5.2 innings per outing this year, which ranks 10th. Last year they finished dead last with just 4.1 innings per start. Whatever the Tigers coaching staff is doing seems to be working for the starters.

What’s Next?

Spencer Turnbull has always had the stuff, and last night he etched his name into Detroit Tigers lore by throwing strikes. It was spectacular.

Now comes the all-important next step. No one would begrudge Turnbull for reveling in his accomplishment, and we don’t expect him to go out and throw another no-hitter.

But we’ve all see what Spencer Turnbull is capable of now, and it’s up to him to decide his future path.

He can treat Tuesday’s no-hitter like the peak of his career, or he can use it as another stepping stone toward becoming the next great Detroit Tigers pitcher.

Next. Jake Rogers and Eric Haase Need to Stay. dark