The Tarik Skubal breakout is here for the Detroit Tigers

Detroit Tigers’ starting pitcher Tarik Skubal is blossoming into an ace right before our very eyes.

The Detroit Tigers’ three-headed monster of pitching prospects that was headlined by Casey Mize, Matt Manning, and Tarik Skubal has every “head” in the majors now. Most people thought Mize would be the best of the three simply due to his 1:1 draft status, but so far, ninth-rounder Tarik Skubal is leading the charge.

Skubal was originally drafted in the 29th round in 2017 out of Seattle University by the Arizona Diamondbacks. He fell after undergoing Tommy John Surgery in late 2016. He chose to return to school instead to improve his draft stock, and that worked out for him.

It was Skubal’s agent Scott Boras’ relationship with the Tigers’ front office that put Skubal on the Tigers’ radar. He was always seen as a bit of a live arm, with a very high strikeout rate but also having an alarmingly high walk rate in college.

Here’s what MLB Pipeline had to say about Tarik Skubal prior to his breakout 2019 season in the minor leagues:

“Skubal pounds the zone with a 92-95 mph fastball that reaches 97 and features late life when he locates up in the zone. His above-average curveball in the low-to-mid-80s is his go-to secondary offering and nets him a ton of whiffs, and he also shows good feel for commanding and misses bats with short, tight slider. Skubal’s changeup is a clear fourth pitch for him, though it stands to improve considerably as he learns to better control his arm speed.”

Skubal would go on to dominate High-A Lakeland and Double-A Erie in 2019, striking out 179 batters compared to just 37 free passes with an ERA of 2.42. He shot up prospect lists in the process, with Pipeline having him go up from #20 on their list all the way to #5 entering the 2020 season.

Here’s Fangraphs’ projection of Skubal prior to the 2020 season:

“His overall swinging strike rate (18%) was higher than the rate on his fastball alone (15%), which means the secondaries were a net positive for him, but we’re unsure of what big league hitters will do if they know a fastball aimed at the letters is coming most of the time. So while he’s had nothing but goofy strikeout rates for two years, we think Skubal ends up more toward the middle of a rotation rather than the front.”

Now this projection isn’t too far-fetched, especially at that time. Skubal was heavily reliant on his fastball, and even during his first full big league season in 2021 he still relied on that pitch quite a bit.

But here in 2022, Skubal has started mixing in his offspeed pitches more often, and it’s starting to pay off. His fastball usage is now under 50%, and his slider usage is the highest of his career so far at 28.7%. He’s also using his curveball more than ever before at 8.1%.

This in turn has led to by far the lowest barrel rate of his career at 5.7%, compared to a whopping 13.9% last season. Shockingly, good things happen when you don’t give up hard contact. Home runs were a huge problem last season, and so far he’s only given up 2 this year, and those both came in the same start.

His walk rate is down over two percent as well. He’s always been at his best when he was on the attack, pounding the strike zone, and he’s doing that more than he ever has.

Tarik Skubal has always had the stuff to be a dominant major league pitcher. It was always a matter of harnessing that energy. Here in 2022, we’re beginning the see a breakout. He’s becoming the ace the Tigers desperately need.