Detroit Tigers: Tarik Skubal made history, but you didn’t notice

Tarik Skubal pitches against the Houston Astros. Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports
Tarik Skubal pitches against the Houston Astros. Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports /
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Tarik Skubal was terrific on Sunday afternoon. Detroit’s young hurler didn’t get the win, but it’s hard to imagine the Tigers pulling off their exciting walk-off squeeze in the 10th without Skubal’s excellent outing keeping them in the game.

In sports the term “making history” is often reserved for milestone achievements, or obviously epic performances. Miguel Cabrera’s 500th home run will be historic, for example, and Spencer Turnbull made history by throwing a no-hitter earlier this year.

But rare and remarkable things happen just about every day during a Major League Baseball season. Sometimes you just have to dig a little to understand what happened.

Which brings us back to Tarik Skubal.

Tarik Skubal’s Feat

Tarik Skubal tossed seven innings against the Houston Astros on Sunday, allowing just one hit while striking out nine. He did walk three batters, and hit two more, so he wasn’t exactly Rembrandt out there, but let’s just focus on those three numbers: 7-1-9.

It’s noteworthy any time a pitcher goes seven innings and allows one hit while striking out nine, but it’s not really historic. In fact, it has already been done 17 times this season. Zack Wheeler of the Phillies has done it twice, and the Detroit Tigers have had it done against them twice (Shane Bieber and Carlos Rodon).

But this is where we point out Tarik Skubal is still young. Sunday’s outing was just his 24th career big-league game. How many pitchers have authored a 7-1-9 line (or better) in their first 25 career games?

The answer is 55. Five pitchers, including Juan Marichal and Johnny Cueto, accomplished the feat in their first career game. Clay Buchholz and Shohei Ohtani did it in their second outings. Kerry Wood’s famous 20-strikeout game came in his fifth career start.

But no Detroit Tiger had ever done it.

Casey Mize was excellent on Saturday against the Astros, but he hasn’t gone 7-1-9 (yet). Michael Fulmer didn’t do it. Nor did Max Scherzer, Rick Porcello, Justin Verlander, Jack Morris, or Mark Fidrych.

In fact, to find a 7-1-9 line from a young Detroit Tigers starter, you have to expand the sample size to 45 games. When we do that, we see Justin Verlander’s first no-hitter, which came in his 45th career game.

So what Tarik Skubal did last Sunday was pretty special. But something else made it historic.

Tarik Skubal’s Opponent

The 2021 Houston Astros are good. Here are some of their credentials heading into last Sunday:

  • A run differential of +143, which was 40 runs better than any other team
  • A 48-29 record, the second best in baseball
  • A team strikeout rate of 18.6%, by far the lowest in baseball
  • A team K-rate 21% below league-average. Just nine teams in MLB history have finished a season with a strikeout rate 20% below league average
  • A team wRC+ of 126

As a reminder, wRC+ is a measure of total offense, where 100 is league average, and every number above 100 is a percentage point better than average.

So the Astros offense Tarik Skubal faced is performing 26% better than league average this year. If that doesn’t sound impressive, consider that it’s literally the same wRC+ as the 1927 Yankees.

Now, Tarik Skubal wasn’t facing the fully weaponized Astros lineup. Alex Bregman is injured, and Michael Brantley had the day off, but Skubal still saw six batters with an OPS of .800 or better. This was a terrific lineup, and Skubal dominated them.

So how rare is it for a young starter to dominate an offense that good? Remember those 55 young starters with 7-1-9 games? Only four did it against an opponent with a wRC+ of 110 or better:

*denotes wRC+ at the time. Seattle finished the season at 98. Oakland finished the year at 112.

Tarik Skubal’s Experience

So far we’ve been qualifying Tarik Skubal’s achievement by limiting comparisons to inexperienced pitchers. Let’s stop that right now.

Since 1901, how many times has an MLB pitcher, regardless of experience level, authored a 7-1-9 line against an offense that finished the season with a wRC+ of 110 or better?

Just 24 times.

We don’t know if Houston will finish the season with a wRC+ of 110 or better, but if they do, what Tarik Skubal did last Sunday is about as rare as a perfect game. And there’s a chance it could be even rarer than that:

If the Houston Astros maintain their offense for the remainder of the season, Tarik Skubal will be just the second pitcher in MLB history to author a 7-1-9 line against an offense with a wRC+ of 120 or better, and the first since Phil Niekro did it against the Big Red Machine in 1976.

Detroit Tigers fans witnessed history last Sunday, even if they didn’t realize it. Maybe Tarik Skubal will never pitch a better game, and it will end up as the highlight of his career.

But it sure feels like the beginning of something special.

Casey Mize for the All-Star team. dark. Next

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