DETROIT — Tarik Skubal was watching intently in the dugout Friday night when Eduardo Rodriguez became the first Tigers pitcher this season to cross the 100-pitch mark in an outing.
“He wants to go deeper into games,” manager A.J. Hinch said Sunday morning. “He jabs at me every now and then about not going 100 pitches. When Eduardo went 100 the other day, Skubal was the one guy that mentioned it to me.”
Hours later, as Skubal had a mound meeting with pitching coach Chris Fetter following back-to-back walks in the sixth inning of what became a 5-1 win, that was clear. The Orioles weren’t hitting Skubal — they had just three singles to their credit — but Hinch could see Skubal missing his spots by a wider margin, a sign of fatigue perhaps caused by the sinus issue he has been battling in recent days. The O’s had a line of right-handed batters ready for him, starting with cleanup hitter Anthony Santander. The Tigers had right-hander Jacob Barnes warming in the bullpen.
But it was clearly Skubal’s game.
“I don’t want to go get him for a lot of reasons,” Hinch said later, “but mostly because he earned the right to finish his outing.”
Hinch put trust in his 25-year-old left-hander, who went right at Santander with a first-pitch slider in the strike zone before getting him to chase a changeup off the plate. Not until his 1-2 pitch did Skubal throw a fastball, which fanned Santander for the second out of the game and Skubal’s 11th strikeout of the afternoon, tying a career high.
Skubal’s 100th and final pitch was a first-pitch slider to Chris Owings, who chased it up in the zone and popped out. It was his highest pitch count since tossing 102 pitches over seven innings of one-run ball against Houston last June, but Sunday’s win over the Orioles carried more weight.
On a getaway day when the Tigers lost outfielders Austin Meadows and Victor Reyes in the first two innings, Skubal made sure Detroit kept control of the game, saving bullpen innings as the Tigers begin a three-city road trip without fellow starters Casey Mize, Matt Manning, Tyler Alexander and Michael Pineda.
“The bullpen’s taxed; it’s my job to go out there and give us as many innings as I can,” Skubal said.
In the process, Skubal continued his maturation into the front-line starter he wants to be and the Tigers need.
“Tarik’s really developing into a really, really good pitcher,” Hinch said.
The Tigers felt like this was his path, especially after watching him in Spring Training last year. Now it’s starting to show statistically. He ended Sunday among the AL’s top 10 pitchers in ERA, strikeouts and innings pitched, not to mention a team-high run of 14 consecutive scoreless innings.
His metrics aren’t far off. He’s ranked among or around the top 20 percent of big league pitchers in a number of predictive stats, including expected weighted on-base average (81st percentile), expected on-base percentage (87th percentile) and expected ERA (78th percentile). His hard-hit rate is down 7 percent from last year; similarly, he has cut his rate of “barrels” allowed in half.
Moreover, he looks the part. He’s working more like a pitcher and less like a thrower.
“I think he understands [that] to be a complete pitcher, he’s got to be more than a fastball pitcher,” Hinch said before the game. “Slider, changeup, even a slow curveball, he’s got a wider array of weapons that he’s understanding how to use, and he’s growing.
“He’s not perfect. He doesn’t make perfect pitches. He doesn’t have to. But I think he needs to adapt his game plan to the strengths and weaknesses of the opponent. He’s doing a better job of that. When I first got here, he would just be power all the time; it’s my stuff all the time and we’ll see what happens.”
The changeup was critical on a Sunday when the Orioles stacked their lineup with right-handed hitters, who were batting 35 points higher than left-handed batters against him entering the day. He threw 13 changeups and drew five swings and misses off the pitch, including back-to-back whiffs to fan Jorge Mateo in the second inning.
“He was commanding his pitches really well, just going after hitters, attacking the hitters,” said Santander, who fanned on a changeup with a runner on in the fourth. “The first-pitch strikes were a big point of emphasis for him. He just did really well against us.”
Said Skubal: “I felt like I did a good job of getting to two strikes and then being able to execute a pitch with two strikes. Strikeouts come, but I’m not really going to be focused on them. It’s good to get to two strikes and then get guys out in those counts too.”
All three singles Skubal allowed came from right-handed hitters. All three led off innings, which Skubal lamented, but only one runner advanced from there. The one left-handed hitter to face Skubal was All-Star Cedric Mullins, who fanned all three times.
As Hinch plots out his rotation and tries to find opportunities to rest key relievers, these outings matter. Skubal is becoming the guy Hinch loves to see in the pitching order, and opponents dread.