Tarik Skubal Is Pitching Like an Ace

Tarik Skubal
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

The biggest news to come out of Thursday’s series opener between the A’s and Tigers in Oakland was the A’s gifting retiring future Hall of Famer Miguel Cabrera a bottle of wine valued at under $100 — a gift roundly criticized on social media for being both cheap and not particularly appropriate, given Cabrera’s history with alcohol abuse. It was the kind of story that is ripe for punchlines: a franchise whose much broader-scale cheapness is costing their loyal fans a beloved local team presents a thoughtless gift to fulfill an already awkward tradition before a meaningless game. But at least outside of Detroit, the ceremonial blunder may have overshadowed another outstanding performance from a pitcher who has quietly been one of the hottest in baseball since returning from injury in July: Tarik Skubal.

On Thursday in Oakland, Skubal faced 22 hitters and recorded 21 outs, using just 87 pitches. He struck out 10 of those 22, walked just one and allowed only a pair of singles, both of which were erased by double-play balls. No A’s hitter reached scoring position until the Tigers’ bullpen had taken over after Skubal’s seven scoreless frames. The two hits he gave up looked like this:

And this:

It was a masterful start, the best in a season that has the left-hander looking like he’s taken a stride toward joining the league’s upper echelon of starting pitchers. After undergoing flexor tendon surgery last summer, Skubal started 2023 on the 60-day injured list. But since his July 4 debut, he’s been lights out in 14 starts, with a 2.95 ERA, 2.34 xERA, 2.15 FIP, 2.70 xFIP, 31.8% K%, 4.7% BB%, 0.92 WHIP, and .201 opponent average over 76.1 innings. In that time, he’s also led all pitchers with 3.0 WAR.

Skubal’s MLB Rankings Since 7/4
Stat Value Rank
WAR 3.0 1
ERA 2.95 13
FIP 2.15 1
xFIP 2.70 2
K% 31.8% 5
BB% 4.7% 17
WHIP 0.92 3
AVG .201 10
Barrel% 4.3% 3
*min 60 IP

There are plenty of ways to frame Skubal’s success over this stretch. He’s held opponents scoreless in six of his 14 outings; aside from one clunker in Kansas City, he’s posted a 2.24 ERA in his other 13 starts. He’s fanned seven or more in his last seven starts, matching the longest streak by a Tiger since the Justin Verlander era, including nine or more strikeouts in four of his last five. In his last three starts, he’s allowed just one earned run and just ten baserunners, striking out 28 over 19 innings and posting a 0.47 ERA, 1.47 FIP, and 2.18 xFIP. And the underlying metrics are bearing out this success: Skubal ranks in the 90th percentile or better in xERA, xBA, K%, BB%, and Barrel%, and in the second decile in Chase%, Whiff%, and GB%.

Skubal was pitching quite well before his forearm injury in 2022, particularly if you ask FIP. In 21 starts that season, he ran a 3.52 ERA, a 2.96 FIP and a 3.40 xFIP, getting into some trouble in the middle of the summer but finishing on a streak of 18 innings without allowing an earned run before being sidelined for nearly a year. But as strong as his four months were last year, he’s exceeded expectations in 2023 — high as they were — and improved in nearly every major metric.

One of the most apparent improvements in Skubal’s arsenal has been a serious tick up in his fastball velocity. After averaging just over 94 mph on the four-seamer for the first three seasons of his major league career, the pitch is at 95.8 mph on average this season, an increase he attributed to “subtle mechanical adjustments” made during his rehab. The results have been immediate: a pitch that was worth nine runs below average in 2021 and two below in ’22 has been worth nine runs above average in ’23, or 2.2 runs per 100 deployments. Opposing hitters have gone from a .420 wOBA off the fastball in 2021 to a .246 mark this year. And the pitch grading systems have taken notice: per PitchingBot, his fastball improved from a 50 in 2022 to a 64 in ’23, 13th-best among the 177 pitchers with four-seamers who have thrown as many as 75 innings. By Stuff+, the pitch has gone from an overall grade of 94 to 103.

Skubal’s Four-Seamer Improvements
Metric 2022 2023
Velocity 94.1 95.8
wOBA .359 .235
xwOBA .307 .223
RV -2 9
Pitching+ 94 103
BotOvr 50 64
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

With such an effective fastball, he must be going to it more, right? In July, that was the case, as he went from a 26.6% usage rate on four-seamers in 2022 to 44.8% in his first month back. But even over the course of this season, he’s made some significant adjustments, thanks in large part to the effectiveness of a new-and-improved changeup. The change has always been a feature of Skubal’s arsenal, but it has become his primary weapon against right-handed hitters since his surgery. After using the pitch just 14.9% of the time in 2022, he has ramped up its usage month-by-month in 2023, starting at 17.2% in July, then increasing to 22.8% in August and 31.1% this month. In Thursday’s gem against an all-righty Oakland lineup, he went to the changeup more than any other pitch, opting for it 36.8% of the time — a career-high rate.

Skubal’s increased reliance on the offspeed pitch seems like a direct response to its efficacy. It’s been a strong pitch for most of his career, but it’s dropping more than ever despite the lefty throwing it a tick faster, and hitters are waving at it. Opposing batters are offering at 56.0% of his changeups, including over 40% outside of the strike zone, and whiffing on 51.0% of all swings at the pitch. Among the 748 pitches that have been used at least 150 times this season, that whiff rate ranks eighth and is second among changeups only to Shane McClanahan. Remarkably, no hitter has barreled up one of Skubal’s changeups since August 29, 2020 — his third ever appearance, and nearly 1,000 changeups ago.

Highest Whiff Rates on Single Pitch Types
Player Pitch Type Whiffs Pitches Whiff%
1 Kodai Senga Forkball 176 295 59.7
2 Robert Stephenson Cutter 107 183 58.5
3 Fernando Cruz Split-Finger 122 213 57.3
4 Spencer Strider Slider 294 519 56.6
5 Blake Snell Curveball 146 260 56.2
6 Shane McClanahan Changeup 133 246 54.1
7 Blake Snell Slider 89 166 53.6
8 Tarik Skubal Changeup 79 155 51.0
9 Jovani Moran Changeup 87 171 50.9
10 Giovanny Gallegos Slider 118 233 50.6
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

Hitters have managed just a .177 xBA, .225 xSLG, and .196 xwOBA against the changeup, and their actual production is nearly identical. They’ve struck out on the pitch nearly as often as they’ve put it in play: 32 strikeouts and 39 batted balls. The increased dependence on it has been a key to Skubal increasing his strikeout rate by 7.3 percentage points, the eighth-largest increase in baseball. Stuff models see the improvement here, too: his changeup rose from a PitchingBot grade of 56 in 2022 to a fourth-best 66 in 2023, and from a Pitching+ grade of 101 in ’22 to a sixth-best 113 this year.

Skubal’s Changeup Improvements
Metric 2022 2023
Usage 14.9% 23.8%
Velocity 83.6 84.3
wOBA .220 .198
xwOBA .209 .196
RV 2 5
Pitching+ 101 113
BotOvr 56 66
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

The fastball and changeup have been a lethal combination against righties, accounting for about two-thirds of his pitches. Against lefties, he has an entirely different gameplan, throwing 85% sinkers and sliders — similar to his approach last year — and limiting lefties to a .165 wOBA. With the dual approach, Skubal has become a complete pitcher, capable of both tallying up strikeouts and keeping the ball on the ground when it is hit into play (the sinker and changeup have been the keys here). He has enough tools at his disposal to face hitters a third time through the order, too, now that he’s healthy enough to get that deep into games.

If there’s one knock on Skubal’s 2023 showcase, it’s one he has no control over: the quality of his competition. Through 14 starts, he’s faced just two of the league’s top 10 offenses by wRC+, though, to his credit, he didn’t allow an earned run in 9.1 innings in those games. Five of his starts have come against the A’s, White Sox, and Royals — three of the bottom four non-Tigers offenses.

Still, his stuff is grading well, the underlying metrics are strong, and the results are hard to argue with. Among pitchers with at least 150 innings since the start of 2022, Skubal ranks third in WAR per 100 innings, behind only Spencer Strider and Kevin Gausman. The former ninth-round pick is looking like the Tigers’ ace of the present and future.

Top Pitchers by WAR/100 IP, 2022-23
Player Team ERA FIP xFIP WAR IP WAR/100 IP
1 Spencer Strider ATL 3.28 2.40 2.63 10.2 307.2 3.32
2 Kevin Gausman TOR 3.32 2.69 2.98 10.8 352.2 3.07
3 Tarik Skubal DET 3.29 2.64 3.13 5.9 194.0 3.04
4 Zack Wheeler PHI 3.27 3.06 3.34 9.9 341.0 2.90
5 Justin Verlander 2 Tms 2.53 3.18 3.87 8.8 324.1 2.72
6 Shohei Ohtani LAA 2.69 3.11 3.07 7.9 298.0 2.65
7 Max Fried ATL 2.50 2.83 3.09 6.9 263.0 2.62
8 Carlos Rodón 2 Tms 3.62 3.13 3.49 6.1 236.0 2.58
9 Justin Steele CHC 3.07 3.08 3.40 7.4 287.0 2.58
10 Aaron Nola PHI 3.88 3.30 3.21 10.0 392.0 2.55
*min. 150.0 IP

There won’t be a lot of eyes on the Tigers in the final week of the season as they play out the rest of their schedule against the Royals and Guardians before a quiet October. And there’s a lot to figure out in Detroit, with a seventh straight sub-.500 season coming to a close. But one of the league’s sharpest young starters will be making his final start of a breakout half-season, and Tigers fans and baseball fans alike will hope to have a healthy Skubal for all of 2024 and beyond.

All stats and rankings through September 23.

Chris is a data journalist and FanGraphs contributor. Prior to his career in journalism, he worked in baseball media relations for the Chicago Cubs and Boston Red Sox.

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5 months ago

Great article, Chris! Taking a look at his arsenal, it’s interesting that Skubal’s slider has taken on a different profile (~2mph slower, ~4in more depth) and role within his repertoire. It was his primary pitch in 2022, now it’s third fiddle to his four-seamer and change. I wonder how it’ll be used going forward.