An Ace in the Making, Tarik Skubal Attacks With a Varied Arsenal

David Reginek-USA TODAY Sports

Tarik Skubal is slated to take the mound for the Detroit Tigers on Opening Day when the season begins three weeks from Thursday. Four years into his big league career, the 27-year-old southpaw is emerging as one of the top left-handed starters in baseball. After missing the first three months of last season recovering from flexor tendon surgery, he was one of the best pitchers in baseball upon making his season debut, on July 4. Skubal fashioned a 2.80 ERA, a 2.00 FIP, and a 32.9% strikeout rate — as well as a stingy 4.5% walk rate and a .199 BAA — in 15 starts comprising 80 1/3 innings. His 3.3 WAR from July through the end of the season led all pitchers in that span. And there is reason to believe that he is still getting better, as he adds fastball velocity — he’s hit 99 mph this spring, up from his average of 95.8 mph last season — and fine tunes his five-pitch arsenal.

Skubal sat down to talk pitching at the Tigers’ spring training facility in Lakeland, Florida last week.


David Laurila: Looking at your numbers, I saw that your ground ball rate (51.6% last year) keeps getting higher and higher, and your walk rate keeps getting lower and lower. How have you made those things happen?

Tarik Skubal: “I think it all kind of just stems from confidence and the complete arsenal. When you can throw five pitches over the plate, in the zone, and just go right after guys, you tend to get more uncomfortable at-bats. If you can throw different pitches in different counts, hitters have to be a little bit defensive and aren’t getting their A swings off as often. That’s kind of my approach, and I think it impacts the results I’m getting.”

Laurila: That makes sense, as you don’t throw a lot of sinkers…

Skubal: “It’s more of a two-seam profile. But the changeup and slider… I get a lot more ground balls with those pitches, and with the four-seamer I’m going to get more fly balls. But again, I think it’s mostly how I go after guys. My pitch mix has changed to more offspeed, rather than straightforward traditional four-seamers, which I threw a ton coming up to the minor leagues and even my first couple years in the big leagues. And no, I’m not throwing [the two-seamer] all that much. I face a lot of righties, and typically opposite-handed sinkers — or two-seamers — don’t really perform well against opposite-handed hitters. They’re more for same-side hitters.”

Laurila: What have you learned about your stuff in the pitch lab, whether from looking at data or talking to [pitching coach] Chris Fetter?

Skubal: “I know the shapes and profiles of my pitches when they’re good, when they generate soft contact and swing-and-miss. That’s what I try to hone in on. I know my shapes. I know where to attack guys, where to throw and how [my pitches] play. I’m always tinkering with something. It makes the game fun, trying to get a little bit better every day. I’m always trying to maximize my stuff, knowing which profiles play.”

Laurila: Which pitch profiles play best for you?

Skubal: “There are some pretty global pitches that… like the Alex Lange curveball. If anyone throws that pitch, it will pretty much always work. It’s like, ‘How do I get that one?’ But that one is hard for me to throw. I can’t do it. But I do know what slider profile plays for me, being a left-handed pitcher and what I’m trying to do to right-handed bats.”

Laurila: What are the metrics on your slider?

Skubal: “I try to keep it below five [inches of vertical break] and try to get as much horizontal as I can, which is going to be around three to five. Those are the good ones. If I can keep it in that bullet spin — I think zero [vertical] and five [horizontal] is the perfect slider for me. That’s something I’ve been trying get, but it’s hard to do. But it’s been better. Much better. If I can stay away from the cutter profile and keep the 89 [mph] — the velocity from the slider I had last year — and kind of kill a little bit of vert and have a little bit of horizontal, that’s kind of what you want.”

Laurila: You don’t throw a sweeper…

Skubal: “No. I’ve tried it, but I can’t. I’ve tried every grip in the book. I’ve tried every cue. It just doesn’t work with the orientation of my arm and how I throw.”

Laurila: Zack Wheeler was able to add a sweeper, and he’s currently working on a splitter. When I talked to him a few days ago, he said that he tries to come up with something new every year.

Skubal: “In my case, it’s really just tinkering. Making little sandpaper adjustments is what I call it — being very fine and trying to get a little bit better at something. For me, that’s kind of been slider shape and curveball velocity,”

Laurila: Do you want a harder curveball, or somewhat slower for more separation from your fastball?

Skubal: “I want it to be a little bit harder. I don’t think 77 plays with 97. That’s a big gap. If I can get it a little bit closer, I can turn the pitch into more of a weapon for me rather than just an early- or late-in-the-count pitch.”

Laurila: What can you do to improve the velocity?

Skubal: “Try to throw it harder. I’ve used it as a strike pitch — I feel like I’m just stealing a strike — so sometimes the intent will back off. You need to keep the intent up in order to keep the velocity up. In a game, you’re trying to throw strikes and get count leverage, whereas in a bullpen you don’t care as much where the ball goes. It’s been much better this spring; I’ve been around 80 mph. That’s kind of the honey hole for me, 80-81.”

Laurila: What do you consider your best pitch?

Skubal: “I mean, from a numbers standpoint it’s probably my changeup. I get the most swings-and-misses on that pitch. But I like my fastball. I think the four-seamer sets up everything for me. If I can command that pitch in to righties and lefties, away to righties, it kind of sets up the whole arsenal. That’s the most important pitch for me.

“I’ll throw any pitch in any count; I think that’s what makes pitchers good. Whatever the catcher feels confident in, and however the at-bat is going, is kind of how you dictate what you’re going to throw. You have a scouting report, but you read body language and swings. That’s going to dictate the next pitch more than anything.”

Laurila: Do you shake much?

Skubal: “I try not to. I like to be in a rhythm.”

Laurila: Is it a different game when don’t have your regular catcher?

Skubal: “Maybe if it was a guy I didn’t trust, but I trust all our guys. If I don’t have a relationship with him, I might shake a little more rather than throwing pitches that just aren’t who I am. But again, I trust our guys a lot. They work their asses off.”

Laurila: Any final thoughts, maybe something you don’t get asked about much, if it all?

Skubal: “I have a question for you: How much should you really value analytics versus guys who go out on the field and get outs consistently? If a guy has Stuff+ metrics that are off the chart — this guy shouldn’t get hit — but the hitters tell you different, versus a guy that maybe has below-average stuff but he goes out and carves every time out. Which matters? You have to be able to pitch.”

David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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2 months ago

Welllll, what’s your answer? Haha! Great interview with a soon-to-be great pitcher!

The Guru
2 months ago
Reply to  brent

soon to be? uhhhhh he’s already the best in mlb. 100 from the left side with nasty run and his best pitch is his changeup. Doesn’t get any better than that.