It’s okay if you’re not familiar with Spencer Turnbull. Honestly, up until recently, there wasn’t much of a reason to be familiar with him unless you were a Detroit Tigers fan (and if that’s the case, from an Orioles fan to you, I’m sorry), or you’re really deep on fantasy baseball Twitter.
Why? Because Turnbull was not very good last year. In fact, he was really bad, leading the MLB in losses with 17 and posting a 4.61 ERA, 4.62 SIERA, 1.44 WHIP, and a relatively uninteresting 22.3% strikeout rate.
But through two starts this year, Turnbull has looked very good, pitching five innings of one-run ball with eight strikeouts in his first start of the year, and six innings with six strikeouts and two earned runs in his second start (both against the Cincinnati Reds).
Now, before I start, yes, this is all based on two starts. It’s a small sample size for sure, but there are some interesting things Turnbull has been doing so far that I think are worth noting, and could signal that Turnbull could be on the path towards a bit of a breakout if he keeps it up.
What Turnbull is Doing Differently
Back in the halcyon pre-COVID days of January, I wondered on Twitter what might happen if Turnbull changed up his pitch mix:
Spencer Turnbull has an excellent fastball (14.1 pVAL), a very good slider (seen below), and a decent curveball.
He also has a trash sinker (.420 wOBA against, -11.1 pVAL). Kinda makes you wonder how much better he might be if he quit using it. pic.twitter.com/0pNzp1hZrm
— Ben Palmer (@benjpalmer) January 22, 2020
If you dive into Turnbull’s repertoire, you’re going to see exactly that: a great fastball, a good slider, an okay curveball, and a really really terrible sinker. The sinker didn’t get launched out of the park at an absurd rate (hitters had just a .140 ISO against it), but it got hit all the time.
On its face, Turnbull’s sinker isn’t that bad of a pitch. It’s got good velocity, averaging about 95 MPH, and it’s got some nice movement to it.
But Turnbull’s pitch mix hasn’t changed a ton (with one exception that I’ll get into in a second). Instead, he’s tweaked his pitches and is utilizing them better.
There are three notable things Turnbull has done with his repertoire. The first is adding more spin. Just about every single one of his pitches is posting a noticeably higher spin rate this year than last year. Take a look:
An increase of over 100 RPM on his fastball, almost 120 RPM on his sinker, and 305 RPM on his changeup. That’s something worth noting, because that’s going to have a significant impact on how his pitches move and how they look to hitters.
Second, while he’s still using his sinker, fastball, and slider as much as he used to, he’s switched around using his changeup and his curveball. Last year, Turnbull threw his curveball 12.1% of the time and his changeup 2.9% of the time. Now, he’s throwing the curve 3.5% of the time and his changeup 9.8%.
That’s good, because not only has Turnbull added 305 RPM to the spin on his changeup, he’s also added about two inches of vertical drop, giving him a nice changeup that averages about 86.6 MPH and has loads of movement.
His curveball, by comparison, really isn’t much of a pitch. It isn’t terrible, but it’s nothing particularly special either, pretty much just a show-me curveball.
Adjusting the changeup and increasing its usage over the curveball gives Turnbull a nice offspeed pitch to work with alongside his fastball. It hasn’t been a strikeout or swing-and-miss pitch at all this year, but it doesn’t really have to be, because his slider has been phenomenal.
Again, these percentages are a little skewed because it’s just been two games, but the slider has posted a 40% chase rate, 32.4% SwStr rate, and a 43.2% CSW so far. It’s been a work of art.
Moving on—the third thing that Turnbull is doing might be the most significant thing. In my tweet, I wondered what might happen if Turnbull stopped throwing his sinker because it’s been so bad. Well, like I said, he’s still throwing it a bunch, but he’s been more effective with it.
How? Well, I’d argue the increased spin likely has something to do with it, but Turnbull has been changing how he’s using his fastballs this year. Specifically, he’s elevating his fastballs more, and that is something you love to see. Last year, 35.6% of Turnbull’s fastballs were thrown up in the zone. This year, that percentage has increased to 54.4%. Take a look at how he’s locating his pitches this year compared to last year:
I’m a big proponent of elevating your fastballs and throwing your breakers low, keep changing the hitter’s eye level. It’s effective and often the analytics have borne that out. It looks like Turnbull is doing exactly that, and it’s working.
Not only is he elevating his fastballs, but specifically with his sinker, he’s locating it in the zone more. Last year, the pitch had a 41% zone rate, which is not something you really want to see from one of your fastballs. As a result, the pitch posted a 14.2% walk rate. So far this year? Turnbull’s throwing the sinker in the zone 48.5% of the time.
Changes Beyond the Field
I know we’re all statheads here at Pitcher List, but I’m going to take a moment to pop on my Alex “Think Fast” cap to posit another theory as to why Turnbull has looked good. He’s more confident than he’s ever been before.
If you rolled your eyes at that and said “pfft yea, okay, how can you measure ‘confidence?'” that’s fine, I totally get it. Turnbull himself will tell you that, right now, he’s mentally and physically in a better place because of the work he did in the offseason.
When Turnbull was asked in early July what he worked on in the offseason, here’s what he said:
Normal durability issues and just how to get stronger and stay stronger through a season. A little more of an anti-inflammatory type lifestyle, just learning about nutrition and other things that might help me recover better and sleep better and also lifestyle habits that can help with any kind of stress and anxiety that was probably pretty overwhelming for me last year and just being more mindful. And I just have more people to talk to, that can help me whenever I get in a tough spot.
Honestly, I can’t imagine it’s particularly easy to do what Turnbull did last year. He came in as a 26-year-old rookie who had never really been a hyped prospect or anything, pitched 148.1 innings on one of the worst teams in baseball, got rocked more often than not, and led the MLB in losses.
But the maturity change that happens between your rookie year and your second season is often pretty significant. And Turnbull has worked on his mental state and his confidence on the mound. Before the season started, Turnbull specifically said he was working on his mound presence.
“I definitely wanted to have a different mound presence,” he said. “Guys have noticed and made comments, so the fact that other people are seeing that is evidence what I feel on the inside is definitely showing up on the outside, which is huge for me. I did work on a lot of things—mentally, emotionally, physically.”
So is he Good Now?
So what does this mean for you from a fantasy perspective? Based on what I’ve seen of Turnbull and the changes it looks like he’s made so far this year, I’m a believer.
I’ve always generally liked Turnbull’s potential and what he brings as a pitcher, and looking at his repertoire last year, I really felt like he was just a few adjustments away from breaking out. But, then again, there are a lot of pitchers who are just a few adjustments away from breaking out, it’s the whole logic behind the TINSTAAPP philosophy.
I think Turnbull has made those adjustments. Now, I’m not saying the guy is going to win a Cy Young or anything. I’m not even necessarily saying he’s guaranteed to be good, again, we’ve seen two starts of his, this is a small sample size, I am fully cognizant of that fact. What I am saying is that Turnbull has made some noticeable adjustments that seem to be working really well so far. He’s got the pieces to be a solid starting pitcher in the MLB.
So for your fantasy team, what I would tell you is pick him up. He’s likely on the waiver wire in your league, as he’s available in about 75% of ESPN leagues and 78% of Yahoo leagues. This doesn’t necessarily go for 10-team or otherwise very shallow leagues, but if you’ve got a roster spot with a player you’re not overly attached to, I think picking up Turnbull is a good idea. Because if these adjustments he’s made stick, I think we could be seeing more good starts from him in the future.
Data Visualization by Nick Kollauf (@Kollauf on Twitter)
Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm on Twitter)