Updated: Oct 14, 2021
Tarik Skubal shot up prospect lists after a 2019 in which he struck out 179 batters in 122.2 innings across two levels (A+ and AA). His ERA and WHIP for the year were 2.42 and 1.01, respectively. Skubal debuted in the Major Leagues in 2020, pitching 32 innings, meaning he'll remain a prospect heading into 2021. Several 2021 fantasy prospect lists are already out. Rotoballer ranks him the 32nd dynasty prospect. Prospects 1500 has him 35th. Eric Cross at Fantrax HQ has him at 55th. He is expected to begin the year in Detroit's starting rotation, and, as of this writing, has an average draft position outside of the top 300 picks in NFBC drafts.
The lack of love for Skubal so far in 2021 redraft leagues can be attributed to the 5.63 ERA logged in his 32 inning MLB debut, and perhaps to a lesser degree that he plays for what is currently one of the worst teams in baseball. It's not a gamble the majority of owners are excited to take. Here's why they're wrong.
Let's start by breaking down those 32 innings. Skubal appeared in 8 games in 2020, 7 of which he started. On only four occasions did Skubal pitch 5 innings or more. In those longer appearances, which comprise 22 of his 32 innings, he never gave up more than 2 earned runs. That is solid performance (2.86 ERA) demonstrated over half of his appearances and two-thirds of his total innings pitched. You like to see that in a rookie.
The other 10 innings had the kind of blowups that can be typical of a young starter learning how to pitch in the Major Leagues. Two starts in particular stand out. In his MLB debut on August 18, Skubal faced the White Sox and gave up four earned runs in two innings. A red-hot Tim Anderson homered and doubled off of him in those two innings on his way to a four-hit day. Welcome to bigs, kid.
Skubal followed up his debut with three relatively uneventful appearances, including two decent starts against a very good Minnesota Twins lineup. Then, on September 10, Skubal faced St. Louis and gave up 6 earned runs in two innings pitched. Most of the damage in that game came from three home runs, two of which came courtesy of Paul Goldschmidt and Yadier Molina. A learning experience to be sure.
Of course, those blowups are part of the sample, but I find the good outings more encouraging than I find the bad ones discouraging. The damage was done by MLB all-stars for the most part and Skubal had never pitched higher than AA before 2020. Moreover, aside from the two blowups, Detroit tended to pull him from the game in the few short outings when he got into trouble. They're handling him well. They're putting him in position to succeed.
But take a step back. The thing that caught my attention in Skubal's debut numbers was not his 5.63 ERA, which is bad. It's that he logged a 1.22 WHIP along with it, which is pretty good! Skubal did a good job of keeping runners off base. His 10.41 K/9 was good enough for 71st percentile in the league. His walks (3.09 BB/9) were roughly league average, but actually improved from the 3.83 rate he displayed at AA in 2019. He has above average fastball velocity, fastball spin, whiffs, and xBA. So the ERA was bad, but he showed promise in several areas, and a good WHIP can be a strong indicator that a high ERA has room to come down. Here are several ways Skubal could improve in 2021.
1. Home Runs
Skubal's biggest problem was not that he put runners on base. It was letting them circle the bases in home run trots. Across five different levels in the minor leagues, Skubal's home run rate was never higher than 0.56 HR/9. In the Major Leagues, that number jumped to 2.53, an increase of 352%. Yes, hitters in the Major Leagues are better than anything he previously faced, but 32 innings is far too small a sample size to convince me that this is the new normal. It's hard to imagine the home runs getting any worse, and even a modest regression could have a considerable positive impact on his overall numbers. And as discussed below, there are multiple avenues he can take to help reduce the home run problem.
2. Strand Rate
With a strand rate of 70.4%, Skubal was pretty unlucky. Not only was that the lowest of his professional career in any meaningful sample, it was lower than the league average, which is typically around 73%. Again, a modest change in luck stranding runners brings down Skubal's ERA, but can we expect it? It's difficult to predict in this moment what Detroit's starting infield (or outfield, for that matter) will be in 2021, but at minimum, Detroit's defense shouldn't be any worse, which helps make the case for a tick or two of regression back towards his baseline and league average.
3. Ground Ball Rate
Skubal's ground ball rate in his MLB debut was 27.7%, which is the lowest of his professional career. In his largest professional sample (80.1 innings at A+), he induced 39.1% ground balls. In his second largest pro sample (42.1 innings at AA), his ground ball rate was 40.6%.
Ground balls are associated with both lower batting average and slugging percentage than fly balls. In 2019, for example, league batting average on ground balls was .236. On fly balls it was .254. The difference in slugging was even more pronounced (.257 vs. .758 in 2019).
With Skubal's 2020 ground ball rate so far outside of his professional career baseline, a correction is likely, which means greater efficiency in getting outs and hopefully fewer home runs.
4. Pitch Mix
Let's talk about Tarik Skubal's pitch mix, displayed in the following table, courtesy of Baseball Savant:
Skubal's main pitch is the 4-Seam Fastaball, which he used nearly 60% of the time. It's also the pitch on which he gave up the most home runs (6 of 9). Batters slugged higher and hit for higher average on Skubal's 4-Seam than any other pitch. It's not a bad pitch though, and there's plenty of reason to use it as his main weapon. (I would direct you to this excellent discussion of Skubal's "Real, Weird, and Possibly Spectacular" fastball by Zach Hayes at Pitcher List).
Used second most often (16.4%) is the changeup, on which Skubal gave up two home runs, which is actually a slightly higher rate of home run per pitch than the 4-Seam, though it also has a higher whiff rate, lower batting average, and lower exit velocity. Looking only at those things you might be tempted to say "hey, just throw the change more often. Easy!" But look closer and you'll see that all 97 changeups Skubal threw were against right-handed batters. He didn't throw a single changeup to a lefty. It simply wasn't part of his arsenal against southpaws, which essentially makes him a two pitch pitcher against them. Every team will know this when they face him in 2021.
Used almost as much as the changeup is the slider (15.7%), which Skubal appears comfortable throwing against hitters from both sides of the plate. It has his lowest home run rate of his three main pitches, the lowest batting average against, the lowest slugging, and the lowest exit velocity. There's a lot to like here.
Skubal also threw a curveball and a cutter a combined 9% of the time. It's difficult to discern a great deal from these small samples, but the curveball was not particularly successful and the cutter appears to have a 100% whiff rate on seven pitches, which makes you raise your eyebrows before you dismiss the laughably small sample.
A small change to Skubal's pitch mix could go a long way. He could become comfortable throwing his changeup to lefties once in a while. He could increase his slider usage and decrease reliance on the 4-Seam. He could give us a larger sample of that cutter. You can bet he is having these conversations this winter and working on his approach in order to be ready for 2021.
Like any young talent, Skubal will make adjustments. I see so many ways in which he could improve on his promising MLB debut. Any one of them could help, but if he can make several of these changes, he could be very successful in the Major Leagues in a hurry. His 2020 looks like a pretty reasonable floor and his ceiling is considerably higher. At his current fantasy ADP, it costs you nothing to draft him and find out if he can reach it in 2021. I'm buying.
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