Prospects come and go all the time. Andy Marte, Brien Taylor, and Todd Van Poppel come to mind. Jamarcus Russell and Darko Milicic do too. No matter the sport, for all the hype and hope that prospects provide, they are frustrating. However, sometimes a prospect comes out of nowhere doing things that are impossible to ignore. This year, that prospect is Tarik Skubal.
Tarik Skubal: The Most Interesting Prospect You’ve Never Heard About
Draft position and minor league numbers mean something. They really do. The problem is that no one has ever been able to quantify exactly what they mean. Names like Tom Brady, Mike Piazza, and Manu Ginobili prove that scouting is a very inexact science. On the other hand, AJ Reed laid waste to minor league pitching for years, with no major league success while Fernando Tatis Jr. has hit better in the majors than he ever did in the minors.
All of that leads here, to this: guys are always overperforming and underperforming relative to expectations. Sometimes the surface numbers hide flaws, sometimes they hide gifts. It’s honestly hard to know what numbers to trust. Sometimes, the numbers hide nothing at all – and that’s when prospects get really interesting.
Tarik Skubal was drafted by the Detroit Tigers in the 9th round of the 2018 draft. He posted fairly middle-of-the-road numbers in his undergraduate career at Seattle University. The most interesting thing about him was that he struck out 106 batters in 80 collegiate innings that year. His ERA was uninspiring, and he also issued 56 walks. The whole package is relatively unremarkable. It’s easy to see both why he was drafted, and why he fell to the ninth round.
His first taste of pro-ball went well. He threw 22.1 innings across three levels, giving up only three runs (one earned), with 15 hits, four walks, and 33 strikeouts. It was barely a taste of what was to come. After that showing, the Tigers bumped Skubal up to A+ ball to start 2019. There he tossed 80.1 innings of 62 hit, 19 walks, and 97 strikeout ball. For those paying attention, that means his WHIP was 1.008. The run prevention was fine both as ERA (2.58) and RA9 (3.25). The whole package was good enough that the Tigers promoted Skubal to AA.
Tarik Skubal’s Surge
No one could have seen what was coming. If someone tells you they did, they are lying. Skubal had been good, sure. But for whatever reason, when he arrived in AA, something clicked. Upon arriving in AA, Skubal went on an absolute tear. In nine AA starts, he pitched at least 4.2 innings seven times. In each of those games, he struck out at least seven batters. Six times, he struck out at least ten. He issued more than two walks only twice. All totaled, Skubal has pitched 42.1 innings at AA . . . with 82 strikeouts. That’s a 17.4 k/9 ratio (against 3.8 bb/9).
Craig Kimbrel has never managed a 17.4 k/9 in a season where he pitched even 21 innings. In the 20 inning sample that he did manage exactly that mark, Kimbrel had a 7.0 bb/9, not a palatable 3.8 rate. In fact, Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer, Pedro Martinez, Randy Johnson, and Nolan Ryan have never managed a k/9 of 17.4 at any level – and they all have had at least one 300 strikeout season.
Tarik Skubal is going full Star Trek on baseball fans. He is very boldly going where no one has gone before. It is impossible to say where his career goes from here. Maybe Skubal ends up in relief or gets hurt, though let’s hope not. Maybe his strikeouts taper off as he’s promoted, though he’s certainly bucked that trend so far. Or maybe baseball gets lucky and he’s the first to a 21 (or better) strikeout game. Time will tell. Whatever happens, it should certainly be worth watching.