Player Profiles 2020: Detroit Tigers Starting Pitchers
Throughout the winter months of the offseason, the Pitcher List staff with be creating profiles for every fantasy-relevant player for 2020. Players will be broken up by team and role through starting pitchers, bullpen, lineup, and prospects. You can access every article as it comes out in our Player Profiles 2020 hub here.
Tigers At A Glance
There isn’t much to be excited about entering the year for the Tigers, though it could get intriguing quickly. If Matthew Boyd isn’t dealt this off-season and takes a step forward with his heater and changeup, he can become a legit ace to lead the staff. Spencer Turnbull has tools to develop into a 2/3 SP, Michael Fulmer has a puncher’s chance to make an impact once he enjoys a properly healthy season. Two fantastic prospect arms, Casey Mize and Matt Manning, could make their appearances this season.
Matthew Boyd – Locked Starter
Nickname: The Original Boyd Boy
2019 In Review
We were all Boyd Boys at the start of the season. His slider was missing bats down, his fastball velocity stuck at the 91/92 level we saw in late 2018 (and even moved to 92/93 in June through September), and the production followed. Everything came crashing down in the summer, however, where his pitches constantly turned into longballs. Boyd held a near 3.00 HR/9 for three months, ballooning his ERA and frustrating owners everywhere.
With 2020 ahead, can he keep the homers at bay and ride the back of his 30% strikeout rate?
Fastball (54% usage)
Despite its ghastly 23 homeruns allowed on file, Boyd’s fastball took a strong leap forward in 2020. He raised its velocity a full tick to a steady 92/93, elevated its SwStr by three points as he…elevated the pitch frequently, and was even able to turn to the four-seamer into strikeout offering, nearing a 30% mark for fastballs.
The problem lies in its consistency. Paired with his slider, the gameplan of keeping fastballs up and sliders low worked like a charm when executed, but too often would heaters fall closer to the middle of the zone and would be subsequently clobbered. Boyd will need to focus on staying away from the heart of the zone and possibly shift his approach from pumping strikes (61% zone rate on his heater) to nibbling the edges. Refinement of his changeup would also go a long well to help nullify the hittability of his heater when mistakes are made.
Slider (41% usage)
Boyd technically throws a curveball as well, but I’m in the camp that believes he’s simply slowing down his slider as opposed to featuring a brand new pitch, so I’ve grouped it here. If not, well, it’s not very effective when it is classified as a curveball, so let’s hope he stops doing that.
We wouldn’t care about Boyd if it weren’t for this slide piece, a pitch that returned a fantastic 20% SwStr rate across a whopping 1062 pitches. Boyd changed its approach in 2019, reducing its zone rate a full 13 points, yet he induced nearly the same swing rate as batters found it hard to resist under the strikezone.
Though Boyd was susceptible to mistakes with the pitch, allowing seven longballs on sliders at it would at times creep to the middle of the plate. These pitches were amplified by Boyd’s hittable heater and would diminish if paired with a strong third option or improved fastball.
Expect strikeouts to keep flowing with Boyd’s slider in his arsenal and if he can improve the pieces around it, Boyd could push for a Top 20 SP rank.
Changeup (6% usage)
We’ve been waiting for the return of Boyd’s 2017 changeup and we’re crossing our fingers for 2020. The pitch was formerly Boyd’s secret weapon, returning a 41% O-Swing, 44% Zone rate, and 16% SwStr rate back in the day, but has seen been nothing of the sort. The slow ball in 2019 tallied a 24% O-Swing with just a 33% zone rate, making for a pitch that Boyd could rarely trust.
With a fastball that made hitters salivate, Boyd still couldn’t take advantage with his changeup. Look early in the year to see if the possible nullifier has returned to form as it could lift him quickly.
It seems we saw the worst outcome from Boyd in 2019 during the hot summer days, featuring an ERA well above 5.00 as he simply couldn’t keep the ball in the yard. Still, with an improved fastball and a vicious slider, the foundation is there for Boyd to take a step forward while keeping his elite 30% strikeout rate.
Fastballs need to stay up, sliders need to stay down, and if that changeup ever returns to form, it could be a breakout akin to Patrick Corbin’s 2018.
There are few pitches with a projection range like Boyd and if you’re drafting him, make sure to have a backup plan if you can’t stomach the ERA.
Realistic worst-case projection: 4.50 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 25% K rate in 170 IP
Realistic best-case projection: 3.40 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 30% K rate in 200 IP
Nick’s reluctant Matthew Boyd 2020 projection:
3.90 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, 29% K rate in 185 IP
Spencer Turnbull – Locked Starter
Nickname: The Hot Topic
2019 In Review
Turnbull was a deep sleeper entering 2019 and impressed many early with a 2.40 ERA and 50 strikeouts through his first nine outings. It came crashing down in a hurry, however, recording a horrific 5.69 ERA and 1.53 in the 21 starts thereafter. Turnbull has raw talent to make his spring last longer into the year, the question is if he can develop across the board to make himself relevant for the 2020 season.
Fastball (65% usage)
Turnbull had a larger focus on sinkers early in the season, but wisely moved away from the pitch in favor of four-seamers – a .346 BAA and sub 40% zone rate with just a 22% O-Swing will do that (terrible marks across the board!). His four-seamer was plenty better, rewarding Turnbull with a sub .250 BAA across nearly 1200 pitches, coming in at a hard 94 mph. There’s room for improvement in its location, rarely locating upstairs and mainly focusing middle-low and glove side, hoping to embrace its slight cut action.
Hopefully, Turnbull puts the sinker firmly on the shelf and becomes a four-seamer heavy arm, possibly embracing its 10%+ SwStr rate to turn the pitch into a weapon deep in counts. A step forward here could help set the foundation for a sturdy season.
Slider (20% usage)
Every arm needs a secondary pitch to rely on heavily (get out of here Sean Doolittle and Lance Lynn) and Turnbull’s slider is the best he’s got. He hasn’t quite mastered the pitch yet, failing to hit the coveted 40% mark in both O-Swing or Zone rates, though its 15% SwStr rate suggests potential as it was an overall helpful pitch for Turnbull.
It acted more akin to a third option last season, but without a better option in his arsenal, Turnbull will need to finetune the break if he’s to take a leap in 2020.
Curveball (12% usage)
Turnbull’s deuce was working as a decent third option early in the year, but the pitch quickly faded as the season progressed, ending the year serving as a poor option to earn strikes. It became a possible option with two strikes, but not much else and its low usage may stick around if Turnbull can’t find its feel again.
The lack of a strong hook puts a larger emphasis on his slider to act as major force in his repertoire – one of the two pitches need to take a step forward if Turnbull is to provide fantasy value in 2020.
Changeup (3% usage)
This changeup was rarely featured and when it was, it was…fine. Don’t expect it to take a large step forward next season as Turnbull will need to revamp the pitch entirely for it to have a positive impact.
With a strong four-seamer that will likely get more attention next season, there is a good foundation for Turnbull to take a step forward. However, there is plenty of work to be done with his secondary options that present a tough path to his ceiling.
Focus on his breakers early in the year to see if he’s made strides this offseason. If he’s getting whiffs constantly or at least confidently featuring either pitch in the zone, there could be value to be had.
Realistic worst case projection: 5.00+ ERA, 1.45 WHIP, 20% K rate in 130 IP
Realistic best-case projection: 3.90 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 24% K rate in 180 IP
Nick’s reluctant Spencer Turnbull 2020 projection:
4.50 ERA, 1.35 WHIP, 22% K rate in 160 IP
Daniel Norris – Likely Starter
Nickname: Matt Foley
2019 In Review
Norris struggled to find his groove for the first four months of the season. His slider had its moments, but nothing else in his repertoire was able to support the breaker and the Tigers elected to go an unconventional route. Instead of utilizing Norris as a pure starter, they limited him to three innings with other arms following in the fourth, often Drew VerHagen. It allowed Norris to raise his velocity slightly (he didn’t need to hold back for later innings), while giving him room to showcase all of his pitches without worry for future at-bats.
It worked well, but his eight starts of 2.25 ERA ball may not transition well as a proper starter in 2020.
Fastball (52% usage)
Norris’ four-seamer has seen better days. He hovered 93/94 mph with the pitch in 2016 and 2017, but has since seen dramatic drops to 90/91 since. Even his move to a short three innings late in 2019 saw its velocity grow to 91/92, not quite at its previous peak.
Without the velocity, the pitch took a beating, allowing a .408 wOBA and 17 longballs on 1062 thrown. While Norris did improve with his changeup and slider, a drop in usage, as well as a stronger emphasis on nibbling (look for a large drop in its zone rate from 60% to a clip closer to 50% in 2020), could be the only path to Norris reaching his ceiling.
Slider (23% usage)
Before the changeup arrived late in the year, Norris’ slider was the pitch that kept him in the majors. Its .211 BAA, 15% SwStr rate, and strong 40%+ Zone and O-Swing marks made the sweeper Norris’ pitch whenever he struggled.
It’s not good enough to lift him out of the hole dug by his fastball, but a rise in usage may help mitigate the damage and keep him afloat in the Tigers’ rotation.
Changeup (19% usage)
With a possible rise in slider usage coming, look for Norris’ improved changeup to get a larger spotlight as well. Its 20% SwStr rate is fantastic and can be used to keep batters off his fastball when sequenced well.
Its 45% O-Swing rate is miles beyond anything we’ve seen previously (mid-20s for most of his career!), though it remains to be seen if Norris can command the pitch well across 5-6 frames instead of the brief three-inning outings we saw in the final six weeks of the season.
Throwing this slow ball and his slider over the 50% hump could spell plenty better days ahead.
Curveball (7% usage)
Given the status of the Tigers, you can’t blame Norris for testing another secondary pitch during the long summer days. Hopefully he puts the experimentation to rest in 2020 as the pitch rarely turned positive results with a paltry 6.5% SwStr rate and just a 27% Zone rate. This hook fooled few.
With a declining fastball, it can be tough to see Norris taking a major step forward in 2020. Add in the wealth of pitching prospects in the Tigers’ system and Norris’ days seem numbered, though there is a chance he takes a step forward by leaning heavily on his changeup and slider as he pulls back on four-seamers.
Don’t bank on this change of approach taking place, let alone the approach returning consistent results. This could be a season of irrelevance.
Realistic worst-case projection: 5.00+ ERA, 1.40 WHIP, 17% K rate in 70 IP
Realistic best-case projection: 4.10 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, 23% K rate in 180 IP
Nick’s reluctant Daniel Norris 2020 projection:
4.50 ERA, 1.35 WHIP, 20% K rate in 150 IP
Jordan Zimmermann – Likely Starter
Nickname: Reasonable Doubt
2019 In Review
It can’t get much worse for Jay-Z after recording a 6.91 ERA in 112 innings last season. His strikeouts plummeted once again to just 16%, WHIP up to 1.52 and there isn’t much hope for better.
Fastball (47% usage)
Zimmermann’s four-seamer velocity has steadily dropped each year since 2014, losing two ticks in two years as it settled just under 91mph last season. The results were as poor as you’d expect, with a .376 wOBA allowed, few swinging strikes, and all-around ineffectiveness.
He elected to work in a sinker to help keep batters off the hittable four-seamer, which had decent results, earning a 33% O-Swing and 60% groundball rate, but was overall mediocre and not the answer to Zimmermann’s fastball problem.
Unless the velocity returns, the struggles will continue, possibly pushing Zimmermann’s fastball usage closer to 40%.
Slider (31% usage)
There was a time when Zimmermann’s slider was the pitch. It returned double-digit pVals in three of four straight seasons, limiting batters to sub .240 BAA constantly while also having a strikeout offering.
Now is not that time. The pitch’s usage has risen over the last two years (wisely as it is his best offering), but doing so has helped plummet its SwStr rate four points to 11% while raising batters’ wOBA to an inflated .374 clip. It still finds the zone 45% of the time while earning chases galore, but Zimmermann needs plenty more from his #1 breaker if he’s to stave off his decline.
Curveball (20% usage)
I surprised myself in 2018 and wrote about Zimmermann’s curveball during a brief summer stint of success, a time when Jordan had found his curveball, featured it more often with his slider to stop throwing ineffective fastballs. It was a nice moment, that fell apart quickly and it’s what we saw for most of 2019 as well.
He did get more chases with the pitch than ever with an impressive 47% O-Swing, but its inability to find the zone while earning a middling 13% SwStr rate rendered a hook that simply wasn’t enough. Maybe Zimmermann finds the pitch again, but the odds are against him.
Changeup (2% usage)
I hate to even mention this split-changeup as it was such a non-factor this season…or any season for that matter. It earned one whiff in just under forty thrown. And we all rejoiced.
It looks a bit grim. Like Norris, Zimmermann may be soon pushed out by budding talent behind him as he plays out the final year of a bloated contract. There will be brief moments of bliss sprinkled in a sea of mediocrity
Realistic worst case projection: 5.00+ ERA, 1.50 WHIP, 15% K rate in 80 IP
Realistic best-case projection: 4.70 ERA, 1.35 WHIP, 20% K rate in 160 IP
Nick’s reluctant Jordan Zimmermann 2020 projection:
5.10 ERA, 1.40 WHIP, 16% K rate in 120 IP
Michael Fulmer – Likely Starter (at some point)
Nickname: Mr. One Day
2019 In Review
Before we could even consider the possibility of Fulmer putting it all together in 2019 – finally – Fulmer went under the knife for TJS in late spring training, removing any glimmer of hope for the year ahead. A lost year by the easiest of definitions.
Note: Usage and stats are in reference to Fulmer’s 2018 season.
Fastball (61% usage)
The allure of Fulmer starts with his velocity, consistently pumping 96 mph with an array of sinkers and four-seamers. Sinkers are the predominant strike-offering as it found the zone near 60% of the time, though Fulmer may have taken his lengthy removal from the game to reconsider its usage. Its .287 BAA and near .800 OPS does him few favors, while a sub 30% O-Swing and just 5% SwStr rates are far from suggesting that the pitch has earned its keep.
Utilizing his sinker as the premier early heater allows Fulmer to expand the zone up later in counts for his four-seamer. Seeing a sub 50% zone rate and 32% O-Swing on a four-seamer is very encouraging, especially when paired with a 12% swinging-strike rate. There’s hope that he can balance their usages a bit more in favor of the straight heater, and possibly pull back on sinkers to rely on sliders and changeups for strikes. There’s a strong enough foundation in a .186 BAA four-seamer to give it a shot.
Slider (18% usage)
Speaking of relying on sliders for strikes, Fulmer already did that in 2018 with an incredible 51% zone rate with the pitch. Normally that would result in few whiffs, but Fulmer still generated an impressive 16% SwStr on the breaker as it induced swings out of the zone at a solid 41% rate. In other words, he earned plenty of strikes on sliders and was the clear pitch for every scenario. Yes, a money pitch, through and through.
Even reducing its zone rate to 45% would still make it incredibly effective over a larger usage rate and suggesting a 25% rate or higher in 2020 would be well in line. Don’t expect this pitch to fall under the 20% usage mark again, it’s simply too good.
Changeup (15% usage)
When Fulmer initially arrived in the big leagues in 2016, his first few outings were a bit shaky, relying heavily on sliders and heaters. Once he introduced his changeup, results improved steadily, leaning on its .167 BAA across 433 pitches.
We haven’t seen the pitch return to the same dominance, however, returning a .902 OPS in 2018, actively hurting his outings. It may have been a product of his elbow surgery after the 2017 offseason, where Fulmer’s fingers were still numb at times during the season and likely during plenty of 2018 as well, possibly reducing his ability to get a feel for the pitch as he once had.
Hopefully a fully healthy Fulmer in 2020 can regain the slow ball we saw four years earlier and give him the third pitch he needs.
We’re still in the dark on Fulmer’s timeline and likely won’t know until spring training hits – if even that early. A conservative expected arrival of July could return a beneficial option down the stretch, with a larger emphasis on a possible 2021 impact season. Look early for his sinker usage to drop with sliders increasing, and let’s all hope he finds his changeup once again.
Realistic worst case projection: 4.90 ERA, 1.35 WHIP, 19% K rate in 40 IP
Realistic best-case projection: 3.70 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 24% K rate in 120 IP
Nick’s reluctant Michael Fulmer 2020 projection:
4.20 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, 22% K rate in 90 IP
Tyler Alexander – Fringe
There were a few bright spots in Alexander’s 2019 season, including a nine strikeout game and a pair of 1 ER games tallying 13 innings between them, but overall, it gave a sense of a Quad-A arm to fill in for some innings.
His 91 mph heater is nothing to write home about, his two breakers each failed to reach a 10% SwStr rate, and his sole whiff pitch – a changeup that boasted a 17% SwStr clip last season – is simply too inconsistent to push him over the edge.
We could see Alexander here and there, but there’s nothing to be excited about.
Casey Mize – Fringe
Nickname: Sir Mize
Andy Patton reviewed Caey Mize in his Tigers’ Top 50 Preseason Prospects article. Don’t expect Mize to make it to the show before June, but there’s a chance for a summer callup, one that you should be aware of when it happens. It’s a strong four-pitch mix that is made to survive the majors, but we’ll see when the Tigers want to give him the call, likely well past the Super-Two.
Matt Manning – Fringe
Nickname: The Show
Andy Patton reviewed Matt Manning in his Tigers’ Top 50 Preseason Prospects article. In short, don’t expect Manning to arrive in 2020 as the Tigers’ window to compete is still a few seasons away. His fastball/curveball approach should play immediately and hopefully a strong third option shows up in time.
Featured Image by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm on Twitter)