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The Road to The Show™: Tarik Skubal

Strikeouts pave path to Motown for Tigers No. 4 prospect
Tarik Skubal ranked third among all Minor Leaguers last season with 179 strikeouts over 122 2/3 innings. (Julio Cortez/AP)
August 3, 2020

Each week, profiles an elite prospect by chronicling the steps he's taken to reach the brink of realizing his Major League dream. Here's a look at Detroit Tigers left-hander Tarik Skubal. For more player journeys on The Road to The Show, click here. In a world in which the

Each week, profiles an elite prospect by chronicling the steps he's taken to reach the brink of realizing his Major League dream. Here's a look at Detroit Tigers left-hander Tarik Skubal. For more player journeys on The Road to The Show, click here.

In a world in which the 2020 baseball season progressed as scheduled, fourth-ranked Tigers prospect Tarik Skubal might already be a Major Leaguer. That’s how quickly the left-hander had climbed through the Detroit system.

Skubal was a 28th-round pick in 2017 -- a year in which he missed the entire season at Seattle University because he underwent Tommy John surgery -- and decided to return to school. Good choice, because the Tigers took him in the ninth round a year later. He signed for above slot value at $350,000, then backed it up by allowing one earned run during his debut summer. The southpaw reached Double-A in his first full season and totaled more strikeouts than all but two Minor League pitchers. Such dominance brought him from an unranked prospect at the end of 2018 to No. 46 overall. Now, as a member of the Tigers’ 60-man player pool, Skubal is one transaction away from pitching in Motown.

2018 (Rookie-level GCL Tigers West, Class A Short Season Connecticut, Class A West Michigan)

Skubal made quick work of his first three stops as a professional, pitching out of the bullpen at each level. He picked up the win over the GCL Phillies West with a scoreless inning in his first game action. Three days later, he tossed two blank frames against the Tigers’ other GCL squad. That was enough for a promotion.

The lowlight of Skubal’s rookie campaign was the one earned run he allowed in his three-inning New York-Penn League debut on July 2 -- the only run charged to him all season. He struck out four and went on to make three more appearances for Connecticut, yielding five hits and a walk while fanning 13 over nine innings.

By July 26, a little more than a month since his first game as a pro, Skubal earned his third assignment. He went 3 1/3 no-hit innings for the Class A West Michigan Whitecaps a day later and followed that with two more scoreless outings before being shut down on Aug. 4. For the season, Skubal went 3-0 with a 0.40 ERA, 33 strikeouts and four walks over 22 1/3 innings.

2019 (Class A Advanced Lakeland, Double-A Erie)

Skubal began his first full season in the Minor Leagues in the Flying Tigers rotation with mixed results. He struck out 10 across 10 innings and gave up two earned runs on four hits in his first two starts. Then he matched that punchout total in his third start, a scoreless outing in which he gave up only three hits without issuing a walk in six innings. In his next outing, he failed to get out of the second inning.

Still, Skubal entered May with a 3.09 ERA. He whiffed 10 at Bradenton on May 5. He went seven innings for the first time on May 16, allowing two earned runs on two hits against Clearwater. The signs that the left-hander was ready for a new challenge were starting to materialize. They became obvious in June.

Skubal made five more Florida State League starts. In that span, he piled up 41 strikeouts and allowed two earned runs. He earned a promotion to Double-A Erie on July 5 and departed the FSL with a 2.58 ERA, 2.56 FIP, a league-best 1.01 WHIP, 30.3 percent strikeout rate and 5.9 percent walk rate.

The numbers only got better in the Eastern League. He was tagged for an unearned run on one hit and struck out 11 in his SeaWolves debut. He tacked on 10 more strikeouts in his second start, then racked up a career-high 13 punchouts on July 19 at Richmond.

Skubal’s four-pitch arsenal helped him attain the highest swinging strike rate (18.1 percent) in the Minors, according to MLB Pipeline. His fastball touched 97 mph. The southpaw’s slider devastated righties, who put up a .180/.259/.304 slash line against the California native. His curveball and changeup aren’t as polished but are still considered above-average.

"Every single outing I want to have every pitch, you pitch the best when you keep every hitter off-balance and make every at-bat as uncomfortable as you can," Skubal told after fanning 13 Flying Squirrels. "You come in and you see what the hitter sees well and doesn't, and so you adjust your game plan off that."

Aside from a five-run outing against Trenton on July 25 and an abbreviated start to end the regular season on Aug. 28, Skubal stayed dialed in. He finished the season with a 2.13 ERA and 1.26 FIP over 42 1/3 innings. He hit double-digit strikeouts in six of his nine starts for Erie, good enough for an absurd 48.2 percent K rate. He struck out nearly half the batters he faced at Double-A and totaled 179 K's over 122 2/3 innings between his two stops -- only Royals No. 6 prospect Kris Bubic(185) and eighth-ranked Rays prospect Joe Ryan (183) registered more.

No team has the collection of pitching prospects Detroit does. No. 7 overall prospect Casey Mizeand Matt Manning (No. 24) rank ahead of Skubal and also closed 2019 in Erie. There’s also Joey Wentz and Alex Faedo, who ranks eighth and ninth, respectively, among Tigers prospects. It was unclear where everyone in that logjam would have started the season before the COVID-19 pandemic and it’s still not obvious who will get a chance to debut in this shortened Major League season. Skubal did not participate in Summer Camp because he was on the Injured List. But nothing can be ruled out in 2020.

Joe Bloss is a contributor for Follow him on Twitter @jtbloss.