If you are an avid reader of my stuff (thanks, Dad) then you know I’ve been the conductor of the Spencer Turnbull hype train since before he even locked down a rotation spot. My bold predictions post looks considerably less bold now, as I predicted he would be Detroit’s No. 3 starter, a feat he seems likely to accomplish. I even suggested a fantasy writer from another site snag Turnbull in the 37th round of his 50-round draft (you’re welcome, Scott).
But this isn’t a brag post but rather a deeper dive into why Turnbull has the tools to be fantasy relevant throughout the 2019 season and to also hedge my bet a little and discuss why things may not look to rosey by the end of the year. After all, some people see a right-handed pitcher with electric stuff and massively improved control, while others see a failed starter and busted second-round pick who had a 4.47 ERA at Double-A and a 6.06 ERA in the big leagues last season and looks destined for a future career in middle relief — a la teammates Buck Farmer and Drew VerHagen.
Turn up for Turnbull
Turnbull originally came to Detroit as a second-round pick out of Alabama, poised to be the next great rotation arm in the Motor City. Injuries slowed his development in the minors, but he put his name squarely back on the prospect map last season with a solid performance at Double-A Erie.
Although his 4.47 ERA in 19 starts doesn’t look great on paper, Turnbull posted a 9.58 K/9 and a much more palatable 3.16 FIP. Two dominant starts at Triple-A Toledo, and Turnbull found himself in the big leagues. He made four appearances (three starts) and flashed some promise while falling victim to Detroit’s abhorrent defense.
A 6.06 ERA was held up by a 2.85 FIP, a 1.29 WHIP and a 15:4 K/BB ratio in 16.1 innings. Turnbull shook the walk issues that had occasionally plagued him in the minor leagues, flashing an innate ability to nibble at the corners.
Here is a look at Savant’s Pitch Visualization tool, which shows where Turnbull’s pitches were located in 2018. Obviously the sample size was small, but Turnbull put pitches on the corner a whopping 47% of the time, whereas the league average is just 39%.
Not only did Turnbull flash improved command last season, he showed off an impressive arsenal that includes a hard fastball, a tight slider that touches 90 mph and a loopy curveball, all of which have missed bats at a productive level in his brief big league experience.
So let’s take a look at them, shall we?
Turnbull sits about 93 to 94 mph with his fastball getting up to 96 mph when he needs to. The pitch also boasts impressive arm-side run, often getting labeled as a sinker or a two-seamer.
He’s shown a tendency to attack hitters up in the zone with his heat, which helps set up his breaking pitches very well, as seen here:
Getting a hitter to chase a fastball up followed by burying a slider in on his back foot is vintage pitching and induced an inning-ending strikeout with two runners on in a one-run game. That’s the kind of stuff you love to see from your fantasy pitchers.
Turnbull’s slider is often mistaken as a cutter, and it’s not hard to see why. This thing averages 86.5 mph and has touched 90 mph in the past. It also has a remarkable amount of drop and break, making it a nightmare for opposing hitters — especially when he’s locating it.
Of course, this pitch has posted a sub-30% zone rate so far in the big leagues, and while it is currently boasting strong O-swing rates, once hitters learn to lay off, he may have to adjust his strategy with his top secondary.
Turnbull flashes a curveball as well, a nice change-of-pace pitch that features 12 inches of total movement and comes in at a solid 80 mph.
Turnbull clearly has a dope arsenal and has learned to use his pitch mix effectively as evidenced by his 15 strikeouts in 11 innings so far this season. Factor in a big ballpark and a very weak-hitting AL Central division, and Turnbull looks like a rosterable fantasy starting pitcher going forward.
Turn down for Turnbull
I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk about some of the risks associated with Turnbull and explain some of the reasons he is available in 98% of leagues.
The above GIF demonstration shows how Turnbull has posted solid strikeout numbers up to this point, but let’s face it: If every pitcher who got Lucas Duda to chase two consecutive pitches out of the zone was a fantasy ace, Nick’s Top 100 Pitcher List would be quite overcrowded.
So far, Turnbull has faced the Toronto Blue Jays and the Kansas City Royals. On Thursday, he gets a Cleveland team that ranks 26th in runs scored without star SS Francisco Lindor and after losing Michael Brantley and Edwin Encarnacion last offseason.
It’s hard to ignore opponents having a role in Turnbull’s success, especially when other relatively unheralded pitchers (Jordan Zimmermann, David Hess, etc.) have feasted on these teams this season as well.
Turnbull will eventually face some high-profile offenses, and his stuff will get tested in a big way. How he handles those tougher opponents will go a long way toward determining if he has mixed-league value or if he’s just a streamer against those poor AL Central offenses.
Perhaps the biggest concern I and many others have with Turnbull is his relative lack of a third pitch. I featured his curveball up above, and while it looks like a nice pitch and has earned a 40% O-swing rate, he has trouble locating it in the strike zone (20%) and has already been taken deep on a hanger this season.
Turnbull did flash a handful of changeups last season, although he seems to have abandoned that pitch altogether this year. Adding an effective changeup would go a long, long way toward making Turnbull a long-term starting pitcher for this Tigers franchise and one who could hold fantasy relevance for years to come.
However, if he is unable to develop that change piece and his feel for his curveball doesn’t elevate, we could have some problems. As I stated above, his slider already is subject to control issues if/when hitters learn to lay off. If he doesn’t have anywhere else to turn, he won’t last long as a starter.
Plus, Detroit has a history of moving failed/struggling starters into the bullpen, like they recently did with Farmer, VerHagen and now Daniel Norris.
Should Turnbull struggle, his profile would fit well as a bullpen piece, where he could sit 96 to 98 mph with his fastball and hard slider — possibly even turning into a late-inning option. That’s a great outcome for Detroit but one that doesn’t do us any good in fantasy unless he’s actually closing out games.
So what the hell is my point? Well, Turnbull absolutely has the stuff, command and pedigree to succeed in the big leagues, as evidenced by his seamless demolition of the Royals this past week. He also lacks a third pitch, and does look like a potential future bullpen piece if things don’t go well in the rotation — which could happen against superior hitting teams.
I wouldn’t advocate for rostering Turnbull in anything shallower than 14-team leagues, but he’s worth streaming — particularly against Cleveland — in nearly all formats while he’s hot.
Graphic by Nathan Mills (@NathanMillsPL on Twitter)