How Tarik Skubal has transformed approach to become ace of Detroit Tigers rotation

Skubal throwing fewer fastballs, keeping ball in yard

Detroit Tigers pitcher Tarik Skubal throws against the Baltimore Orioles in the third inning of a baseball game in Detroit, Sunday, May 15, 2022. (LON HORWEDEL, The Associated Press 2022)

DETROIT – The Detroit Tigers have spent the last several years touting their talented young pitchers, and Tarik Skubal seems to have transformed his approach and emerged as the best of them all.

Sunday was just the latest masterpiece from the 25-year-old lefty. He hurled six scoreless innings against the Baltimore Orioles, striking out 11 batters and allowing just five base runners.

The outing dropped Skubal’s season ERA to 2.50 through seven starts. He’s sporting a 1.084 WHIP and striking out 10.2 batters per nine innings.

Underlying numbers

Last year, Skubal’s first full season at the MLB level, he showed flashes of ace potential. He struck out about 10 batters per nine innings and gradually worked deeper into games as the season went on. The biggest difference in 2022: he slashed his home run rate from 2.1 to 0.5 per nine innings.

Is that drastic improvement sustainable? Probably not to this level. But Skubal has also cut down an already strong walk rate to 1.8 per nine, which, paired with his strikeout rate, means batters have to earn every single base.

Detroit Tigers pitcher Tarik Skubal throws against the Oakland Athletics in the first inning of a baseball game in Detroit, Tuesday, May 10, 2022. (The Associated Press 2022)

The underlying numbers show this start from Skubal is no fluke. His 2.50 ERA is backed by a 2.09 FIP, a 2.36 xERA, and a 2.79 SIERA. Five of his 11 earned runs came during a start in which his defense made two costly mistakes that should have been ruled errors.

In 2021, Skubal was giving up elite quality of contact. He ranked in the bottom 10% of pitchers in terms of hard-hit rate, expected ERA, expected slugging percentage, and barrel rate. The expected batting average and average exit velocity for Skubal’s opponents put him below the 20th percentile of pitchers.

This season, Skubal has completely flipped the script. He’s in the 79th percentile or better in expected ERA, expected batting average, and expected slugging percentage. His hard-hit rate is in the top 35% of pitchers, and while the average exit velocity still isn’t great, it’s vastly improved.

Here’s a look at Skubal’s quality of contact percentile rankings from last year to this year (100th percentile means best in the league):

SeasonAverage exit velocityHard hit %xwOBAxERAxBAxSLGBarrel rate
202113th percentile8th percentile9th percentile9th percentile17th percentile4th percentile1st percentile
202238th percentile65th percentile90th percentile90th percentile82nd percentile79th percentile68th percentile

Skubal has found a way to induce weaker contact while dramatically improving his strikeout and chase rates. His whiff rate has remained slightly above average.

Ground ball rate

But perhaps just as important as the quality of contact Skubal is allowing: the type of contact. Nothing decreases the chance of a home run more than keeping the ball on the ground, and that’s exactly what Skubal has managed to do.

Nearly half the balls in play against Skubal this season have been on the ground, compared to just 38.5% a year ago. With so many line drives and fly balls converted to grounders, it’s easy to see how Skubal made such a drastic improvement to his home run rate.

How’s he inducing so many ground balls? Fewer four-seam fastballs.

New pitch mix

Last season, Skubal threw his four-seam fastball 42.8% of the time -- far more than any other pitch. This season, batters are just as likely to get a slider (28.1%) as they are a straight heater (28.3%).

Skubal is also throwing a sinker 21.4% of the time. While that’s not a great pitch for missing bats, it’s obviously getting Skubal the kind of contact he’s looking for, because he only threw it 12.9% of the time last season.

The change-up and curveball rates are elevated just enough this year that batters have to keep them in mind. Skubal is mixing that deep arsenal to keep batters off balance.

Here’s Skubal’s pitch mix, compared to last season:

Season4-seamSliderSinkerChange-upCurveball
202142.8%22.8%12.9%12.1%6.8%
202228.3%28.1%21.4%13.5%8.7%

NOTE: Skubal also threw a splitter 2.3% of the time and a cutter 0.3% of the time in 2021, per Statcast.

Any time a pitcher takes as big a leap as Skubal in terms of production from one season to the next, look for something concrete to explain that improvement. For Skubal, an updated pitch mix is the smoking gun.

He’s missing more bats than last season because he’s using his most effective swing-and-miss pitches -- the slider, change-up, and curveball -- more often. He’s generating more ground balls because he’s using more pitches with sharp downward action -- the sinker, change-up, and slider.

Skubal is using his four-seam fastball almost exclusively up in the strike zone, which is where it should be.

His slider is the go-to pitch against left-handed hitters. So far, 43.8% of his pitches to lefties have been sliders, and if he wants to go inside on them, he’s jamming them with cutters, not change-ups.

He’ll still use the slider and sinker against right-handers, but Skubal also mixes in enough change-ups to make a difference (16.1%) and increases the fastball usage (30.3%).

Perfect timing for Tigers

None of this is re-writing the book on pitching. Really, Skubal is simply using his pitches how they’re commonly used around the league, and his stuff is good enough to make it work.

The Tigers have lost Casey Mize, Matt Manning, Tyler Alexander, and Michael Pineda to injury this season, and Eduardo Rodriguez has needed some time to adjust. Skubal developing into a top-of-the-rotation starter couldn’t have come at a better time.

Skubal will need to maintain these improvements over the course of a full season to prove he’s a true ace, but these seven starts are exactly what you hope to see from a 25-year-old coming off his first full season.


About the Author:

Derick is the Lead Digital Editor for ClickOnDetroit and has been with Local 4 News since April 2013. Derick specializes in breaking news, crime and local sports.