Yeah yeah, I know we have a bear-bull post that SON has been leading the charge with for several years now, but I haven’t gotten out of my pajamas since the beginning of March and I’m knee-deep in social distancing, I just don’t have the energy to create a better title pun. WE’RE DOING IT LIVE. Not really, but you get my point. While baseball remains in a rut, depending on how much optimism you have left, there are rumblings that July 4th is being eyed as a return to normalcy. Well, maybe not normalcy, but some within the MLB are pushing this date as an achievable goal. I for one am not falling for that hope of optimism, I’m an American dammit, nothing but Cheetos and depression for me! Whether or not this date works out (Narrator: “It wouldn’t”), I have been slowly creating content that is starting to follow a trend: and that’s going over players coming into the season that have either been forgotten, banished to the low-expectation corner of the room, or are unlucky enough to call themselves Padres. This time, I’m setting my sights upon a pitcher, who with a passing glance looks a lot like Bruce Chen reincarnated (pretty cool trick if you ask me since Bruce is still alive), but upon further sight-setting (real word?), might actually end up looking more like Aaron Nola…
“He burst on the scene last year with a 3-17 record and a 4.61 ERA. Hmm, instead of ‘burst on the scene’ I should’ve said spontaneously combusted.”
So true! Spencer Turnbull had quite the roller coaster 2019 season, that indeed looked akin to combustion. (Just like your mom.) And to be fair, at the micro level, having a self-immolation fetish during the season doesn’t look as bad when the macro move the Tigers made was full-on defenstration. In their quest to unlock the X-Box achievement of 114 losses early, both Michael Fulmer and Matt Moore suffered preseason injuries that created an innings vacuum which the then 26-year-old Turnbull was tasked to help fill.
And in the beginning, things weren’t so bad. In his first 84.2 innings, Turnbull was able to generate an effective 3.19 ERA. However, as the season pressed on, his solid start soon turned into a nightmare. His next 60.2 innings produced a terrible 6.60 ERA, and there were multiple factors that led to a disastrous his last few months. There were some shoulder issues (not the first time) that lead to an injured list designation, and with 2019 being his first year as a major league starter, I’m sure wear and tear issues were present. However, just looking at the numbers, there’s a more direct answer to what happened:
|Pre All-Star Break||3.19||3.94||.306|
|Post All-Star Break||6.53||4.07||.374|
So yeah, it’s definitely clear that he was probably a little lucky in the first-half and a bit unlucky in the second-half, but take a look at that FIP. Not much deviation. Is that good, bad, so-so? Well, it actually might be all three. Digging a little deeper into his profile reveals a number of things that would fuel a certain stability underneath a chaotic surface, but also highlight some flaws to be aware of as well.
First the good: Turnbull does an excellent job of keeping the ball in the ballpark, which is inexorably tied to his equally excellent fastball. And it just isn’t any fastball, more specifically, it’s a sinking four-seam fastball. A hybrid ripple he developed nearly two years ago, the pitch has more fade and more spin. Think of a pitch that comes in with less drop that a sinker would have, but less rise than a fastball would that is stuck in a high-spin with fastball velocity. Case in point, batters had a difficult time squaring up against this pitch. Normally, league-wide contact on four-seamers is varies closely around 3.0%. According to FanGraphs, Turnbull’s average was one of the lowest rates in the league at 2.1%. For context, Gerrit Cole and Jacob deGrom, the only pitchers who did better, netted a 1.7% and 2.0% respectfully. And this ability didn’t just lead a great 8.86 K/9, but it fed directly into his very low 0.85 HR/9.
Now the bad: If Turnbull’s fastball was so great, why did he self-seppuku in the second half? Great question, and I have the answer! The rest of his repertoire ranges anywhere from average to, well, not so average. His main secondary pitch is a cutter/slider combo that he throws at a 20% clip, which only netted a 31.8% swing rate outside the zone, which lands him the bottom-25 of all sliders. He also has a changeup (mainly used against lefties) and a curveball which is being used less and less, but it’s very clear that his potential ceiling is tied directly in developing his secondary pitchers a bit more.
The so-so!: Hopefully, in using his FIP to establish the idea that deep down, Turnbull is a solid innings-eater with strikeout potential, we’ve arrived at the fork in the road where I try to convince you that he’s more Aaron Nola than Bruce Chen. My first point would be that I’m probably more Aaron Nola than Bruce Chen. My second point would be the crux of it all, Turnbull’s age. He’s at that weird place where he was always a bit too old in the minor leagues (where he found substantial success that supported the type of profile I just described), a bit too old to debut at the majors, but is still only 27-years-old, young enough to improve his secondary pitches and establish himself as a rotation anchor. There’s also the aforementioned shoulder issues that seem to creep up enough times, both in his minor league history and present to cause some concern that he can continually throw more than 150 innings a year.
All that being said, let’s be clear, at the moment, Razzball currently ranks him as the 118th pitcher, right behind Miles Mikolas and before Zach Davies. And I don’t say this lightly, afterall, he’s sandwiched between an ex-Padre and a current Padre, but I’d rather much take the gamble here with Turnbull than the names around him. As is a trend with some of the other players I’ve been taking another look at (like Jordan Montgomery, Shin-Soo Choo, and Marcus Stroman), Turnbull has shown an ability to be quite the afterthought. 17 losses and middling ratios tend to do that, but he has a secured spot in the rotation for whenever the season starts, is cheap and under long-term team control, and offers a really good fastball with a chance to do more.
Realistically, sure, his ceiling probably isn’t that much higher than what he’s shown thus far, but if that ceiling includes a 3.50 ERA and a strikeout per inning while he sits outside the top-100, why wouldn’t you take a chance?
Jay is a longtime Razzball everything who consumes an egregious amount of Makers Mark as a vehicle to gain wisdom and augment his natural glow. Living in the D.C. area, he also likes spending time visiting the local parks and feeding lettuce to any turtles he encounters, including Mitch McConnell. You can follow him @jaywrong, or read his rarely (like never) updated blog Desultory Thoughts of a Longfellow.