How Tigers ace Tarik Skubal is stepping into the national spotlight

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NEW YORK — So much is unknown about Tarik Skubal, including how exactly to pronounce his name. He gets that question a lot lately, because the magic he creates from the mound is making more and more people curious about his story, his journey. 

His first name is pronounced like Derek, with a T. His last name will be on hundreds, if not thousands, of jerseys at Comerica Park on Friday, when the Tigers host the A’s for their home opener. That backdrop certainly wasn’t the case in 2020, when Skubal made a forgettable big-league debut in front of no fans, delivering a jittery outing that lasted just two innings. The Tigers were deep into a rebuild during Skubal’s first bite of MLB action. Now, that organizational overhaul is over and Skubal’s fourth full season in the majors looks nothing like his previous three. The Tigers are 4-0, enjoying the kind of season Skubal wants to bring to Detroit.

“I haven’t had a winning season in the big leagues and I’m kind of sick of it,” Skubal told FOX Sports on Tuesday at Citi Field. “I want to win. I’m going to try everything I can to win. As far as the spotlight, I don’t really care.”

There’s more national attention on Skubal these days. He has noticed the uptick in interview requests. He has spotted his name on MLB Network. More people want to talk to him now. More people want to ask him questions. The southpaw downplayed how much he cares about being in the limelight, a side effect of being an ace. What matters to him most is that he’s the same guy every day — a good dad and husband at home and a great teammate on the field. 

Some of the players Skubal admires carry his same quiet and controlled energy when they pitch. Skubal was just 12 years old when Clayton Kershaw, a fellow left-hander, made his major-league debut. But from that moment on, Skubal began idolizing the eventual three-time Cy Young winner not just for his talent, but also for his self-effacing disposition. Madison Bumgarner, another low-key left-hander, was someone Skubal respected. 

“I’ve always really valued guys that go about their routine and business,” Skubal said. “It’s not really the stars of the game, it’s the guys that show up and are good. Zack Wheeler is one of the best pitchers in the big leagues, but you wouldn’t know it if you met him off the field. Gerrit Cole, he’s the star of New York, he’s the best pitcher in this city, the biggest city in America. I value guys who just go about their business and who are just really good on the field, and that’s the same way for me. I want to be known for what I do out there, not really for what’s going on off the field.”

But even Skubal, try as he might, couldn’t devalue the reason he’s getting all this extra attention. The 27-year-old, quite simply, has been a top-10 pitcher in baseball since he returned from a July 2023 injury. He has a fireball that averaged 95.8 mph last year and, after a recent mechanical adjustment, only got faster. Skubal finished the year second in WHIP (0.90) and sixth in ERA (2.80) across MLB. No pitcher, not even Spencer Strider or Gerrit Cole, had a higher fWAR (3.3) than Skubal from July through the end of the season.

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On Opening Day, Skubal’s first such honor, he picked up where he left off, striking out six batters over six shutout innings. If he keeps this up all year, he can lift himself into the top five. Skubal is a dark-horse American League Cy Young candidate for a reason. 

“You can downplay it as much as you want, but it is cool,” Skubal said. “You don’t play the game for that reason. You play the game to win. But it is cool.”

Skubal is a student of the game. He spends his free time in hotel rooms and cross-country flights by watching left-handers around the league. One time, he watched Nationals southpaw MacKenzie Gore’s entire outing. As Skubal watched, questions popped up in his mind, like: “How did he attack these guys? What were their swing decisions here?” He is fascinated by pitching biomechanics, so he does homework to study pitch chambers and find out how pitchers around the league move their bodies on the mound. One of Skubal’s latest mechanical adjustments — moving his heel ever so slightly off the rubber — led to better hip movement and an impressive velocity increase that stunned his teammate.

New Tigers outfielder Mark Canha, a 10-year veteran, had the opportunity (or misfortune) to step into the box against Skubal in spring training. This was Skubal’s first live batting practice session of the spring, but he still whizzed a nasty fastball by Canha that caught the hitter by surprise. At the time, Canha didn’t know Skubal was hitting 100 mph in his first live batting practice of the year. Canha figured his own timing must be horrible, and that he had a lot of work to do in order to catch up with that fireball. But once he saw Skubal from a different angle, from left field on Opening Day, and he watched White Sox hitters walk away flummoxed, Canha understood. Skubal is the real deal.

“It made an impression,” Canha said of that live February session. “The way his fastball got on me was pretty shocking. He’s got something special. He’s got that fiery competitiveness.”

Don’t mistake Skubal’s quiet rise to prominence for a humdrum personality. Skubal has an edge, when he speaks and when he throws. He’s comfortable and confident in his own skin. There is no fear creeping in that he has to prove himself.  And he has big plans for the city of Detroit. Last week at Guaranteed Rate Field, Skubal became the first homegrown starting pitcher to take the mound on Opening Day since Justin Verlander in 2008. Verlander became the emblem of the Tigers’ dominance through his decade-plus in Michigan. Now, seven years after Verlander’s departure from the organization, Skubal has the opportunity and the talent to be that hopeful symbol for Detroit once again. 

“You saw what the [Detroit] Lions did,” Skubal said. “Detroit is a great sports town. I feel like, since COVID, we haven’t really been able to give the fans what they deserve. So I’m excited. I’m excited for the city of Detroit. I want that same atmosphere that the Lions had, because that’s fun to play in.”

Skubal thinks it’s great to see homegrown players spend their entire careers with the same team. But he has also seen it happen less and less. “When guys are good,” Skubal said, “they generally go to bigger markets and change teams.” But make no mistake, the left-hander is proud of his Tigers odyssey. He’s eager to see where the young group of players he came up with through the minor leagues can take the club this season and beyond. In the process, Skubal doesn’t dwell on his star rising. All he cares about is winning. 

The lefty has been described as a “bulldog” and has drawn early comparisons to pitchers from Aroldis Chapman to Tom Seaver. But he’s not interested in being anyone else. It’s time to start learning how to pronounce his name. 

“Compare me to the greatest pitchers in the world, that’s awesome,” Skubal said. “That means you think I’m really good too. But I don’t really like to be other guys. I’m going to be me. That’s who I am.”

Deesha Thosar is an MLB writer for FOX Sports. She previously covered the Mets as a beat reporter for the New York Daily News. The daughter of Indian immigrants, Deesha grew up on Long Island and now lives in Queens. Follow her on Twitter at @DeeshaThosar.

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