Tigers lefty Tarik Skubal's journey from operating table uncertainty to All-Star ferocity

DETROIT — Two years ago, on Aug. 17, Detroit Tigers left-hander Tarik Skubal woke up on a cold operating table. Dr. Neal ElAttrache, one of the best surgeons in the world, had just sliced into his left arm.

Something was wrong inside the limb that guaranteed Skubal’s livelihood, but the imaging was not entirely clear. Before Skubal received the anesthesia, he knew what was at stake. If ElAttrache found damage to Skubal’s ulnar collateral ligament, he would face a second Tommy John surgery in seven years. The best-case scenario was not all that much better. Skubal likely needed at least a flexor tendon repair, a surgery that would still cost him nearly a year.

To that point in his young career, Skubal had already written a compelling script. He was the kid from a tiny town on the western edge of Arizona who attended a small school that had once defunded its baseball program. He grew into a gnarly starting pitcher at Seattle University, then tore his UCL, then struggled with walks, ultimately falling to the ninth round in the MLB Draft. After he entered the Tigers’ system, he shot up the prospect rankings as if strapped to a jet plane. His long arms, high leg kick and powerful fastball fueled less of a gradual blossoming and more of a violent emergence.

Skubal was just beginning to find his footing in the major leagues that Aug. 1, 2022, night in Minnesota. It was the evening before the trade deadline. Skubal was shutting down the Twins, dropping his season ERA to 3.52. But after five innings, his arm throbbing, he walked off the mound and into a world of uncertainty.

Justin Wakefield, Skubal’s longtime trainer and friend, watched from afar and sensed trouble. “I pretty much knew something was off right after the game when he texted me,” Wakefield said.

Skubal tried to keep throwing in the days after, but the sensation in his arm did not improve.

He awoke on that table days later, thankfully spared from a dreaded second Tommy John. ElAttrache examined the UCL and found it in pristine condition. But Skubal’s frayed flexor tendon had needed repair.

“I asked, and when they told me I was like, ‘Oh, that’s good,’” Skubal said a few weeks later. “And then I went right back to sleep from the anesthesia.”

The rehab prognosis was 11 months.

Those 11 months helped turn Skubal from promising pitcher to MLB All-Star — and arguably the best left-handed pitcher in all of baseball.

Russ Skubal is a longtime basketball coach and now an elementary school principal. He can spout John Wooden truisms off the top of his head: Success is peace of mind, which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you did your best to become the best you are capable of becoming.

This was the second language of the Skubal household.

“He lives by all of those coachspeak things you say,” Russ said of his son.

Tarik Skubal was the third of four brothers, born in Hayward, Calif., and raised in the little town of Kingman, Ariz. His upbringing is now part of the mythos, a necessary component in understanding how and why Skubal attacked those 11 months the way he did. He was born with a clubbed left foot, casts and a corrective surgery starting soon after he was born.

“He’s had adversity, and he’s overcome it,” Russ said. “Once you’ve had adversity in your life and you’ve overcome it, you just see the challenge.”

He was also born into a house full of boys. That meant basketball goals and pitchback nets, constant competition. When Russ moved from his last home, he had to patch over beebee gun holes left in the wall.

Skubal’s teammates swear he has a goofy side, but even those in his own home talk first about his intensity.

“Cutthroat,” brother Tyler called the upbringing.

There are Jordanesque tales of Skubal losing to Tyler, who was three years older, in driveway games of one-on-one, shots thrown back in his face. He kept trying, forced creative shots, got frustrated but kept coming back for more.

Skubal fought hard at every stage of his life. (Duane Burleson / Getty Images)

“Both of his older brothers, if they went somewhere, he was gonna go, and he expected to be able to compete with them,” Russ said.

For all the Wooden ideology, Russ also had a harder edge to him. Tyler remembers practices halted because he didn’t jump-stop correctly. Missing a practice was never an option. There was a car ride back from Phoenix, when Russ drove while watching the game back on a camcorder, lecturing the whole time.

“I joke, and I’m hesitant to say this,” Tyler says, “but my dad was our Bobby Knight.”

Skubal, the only lefty in his household, played three sports in high school. He viewed himself as a basketball player until his modest recruitment in baseball started coming. Russ may have been hard-nosed, but a young Skubal never lacked the strong will to push back.

“He’s different,” Tyler said. “He was a little bit more stubborn with my dad. He was the kid that pushed the limits. ‘What can I actually do and get away with before dad gets mad at me?’”

Skubal’s unyielding desire manifested itself in 2016, after his Tommy John surgery. He spent that summer home from college, driving nearly 400 miles roundtrip from Kingman to Phoenix so he could access better training. His now-wife, Jess, let him drive her new Dodge Dart. She packed him lunches and helped him get a discounted rate on hotels. “Six-foot-3, fitting in a Dart,” Tyler said. “He’s gone for the week, came back Friday.”

That was supposed to be the worst of it. Skubal slowly recovered from the surgery, got drafted and grew into a major-league pitcher with massive upside.

So when he tore his flexor tendon, it led to an exploration of new depths.

“It was more eye-opening than Tommy John was for me,” Skubal said, “because I was throwing the ball well, and you think, ‘OK, I can keep doing this. I feel good.’ And then all of a sudden, my season is over, and it was very abrupt and I didn’t really understand what all happened. That’s what probably kickstarted looking out and trying to figure out what’s going on and how to manage my body and reinvest into it.”

Jon Huizinga is a pitching coach who works with Skubal in the offseason. On the side, he also works with hot-air balloons, setting them up and tearing them down.

“It gives me this perspective,” Huizinga said. “If I’m at 5,000 feet, things look a lot different than they look if I’m on the ground. What an injury does, it almost forces you to have to zoom out for a second.”

Before Skubal was even able to begin throwing, he and his coaches began charting ways for him to improve. After the 2022 season, the Tigers hired a former kinesiology professor named Robin Lund as one of their pitching coaches. From 5,000 feet, Lund and fellow pitching coach Chris Fetter dove into data from HawkEye radars and broke down the most granular details of Skubal’s delivery. At that point, even when Skubal’s stuff sizzled, he could be prone to long innings and elevated pitch counts. Part of the mechanical adjustments started with strength training.

“I didn’t just rehab my flexor and come back,” Skubal said. “There was a lot of change that I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m down for. I don’t want to get hurt again. If you think this is going to be the best thing for me, I’ll do it.’”

Back on the ground, the early days of Skubal’s rehab took place on tracks and football fields and inside the dark-walled gym of Apex Performance in Phoenix. His relationship with Wakefield began with a fortuitous connection. During his Tommy John rehab years ago, he was scheduled to work with one trainer, but the schedule was full. He ended up with Wakefield, and they quickly formed a close bond.

Now rehabbing from the flexor tendon surgery, Skubal went through the process with plans from both Wakefield and the Tigers’ strength staff. There were exercises with a plastic rod to aid his range of motion, resistance training, running with a sled of weights leashed behind him. Skubal strengthened his lower body and, with his left arm immobilized, worked his right arm with what Wakefield called cross-education training, relying on neural carryover to the arm he could not use.

“We wanted his body to reach another level,” Wakefield said, “and we wanted his arm to be the last thing to catch up, not vice versa.”

By the time Skubal was throwing again, more tweaks took hold. Things as simple as shifting how he distributes weight on his back foot to generate more force from the ground. Skubal was open to anything and everything his coaches presented him.

“When you’re hurt and you don’t understand why things went wrong, you look for guidance,” Skubal said.

Huizinga compares Skubal’s game to Michelangelo carving the Statue of David. There was never a need to add. Instead, it was a matter of chiseling away all that was unnecessary. Small refinements over time.

“I like to say I work with a chisel and sandpaper,” Huizinga said.

Over the course of his first year in the majors, Skubal was a flyball pitcher who could challenge hitters with his fastball so often it got him in trouble. He threw 42 percent four-seamers and surrendered 35 home runs in the 2021 season.

By 2022, even before his injury, his arsenal was more varied. He began generating groundballs at a 45.7 percent rate. Progress. But Skubal, Huizinga and the Tigers all sought more consistency, more efficiency.

“I think if you just go watch video you’ll just see I didn’t move the same way,” Skubal said. “A little slow, not as athletic, all that stuff.”

Skubal returned from surgery on July 4, 2023, and promptly threw four hitless innings against the Oakland A’s, striking out six batters and looking totally in command.

The results off an 11-month absence were dazzling. Skubal had a 2.80 ERA in 15 starts. He struck out a career-best 11.4 batters per nine innings. After his return, he led MLB pitchers with 3.3 fWAR.

“I don’t really know what to credit that to besides just falling in love with the process and trusting that each day you’re going to get a little bit better,” Skubal said.

These days Skubal’s front-side mechanics are firm. Rarely does he fly open with his lead shoulder. He executes the lead-leg block, driving down the mound and generating more velocity. This season, he reached 101.7 mph in a game.

“I think those little, small, fine changes is kind of what you credit it to,” Skubal said.

Once the third or fourth-best pitch in his repertoire, Skubal’s changeup has become his calling card. As recently as this offseason, Skubal was working with his changeup, trying to get more movement through the phenomenon known as seam-shifted wake. Skubal in his career had toyed with different changeup grips, including a failed experiment with a splitter at the outset of the 2021 season. Skubal reverted to a more natural grip but honed in on getting the right spin. With help from the Tigers and Huizinga, they turned to an old-school drill. Skubal would throw balls colored with a large black dot on the inside of the ball. The goal was for the dot to be visible from Skubal’s perspective as the changeup spun and faded away from hitters. This would reflect the proper spin and seam orientation needed for the changeup to be its most devastating.

“It’s just a whole other level of conviction with it this year,” Huizinga said.

The changeup has become Skubal’s equalizer. In 2021, Skubal’s changeup averaged only 8.7 inches of horizontal movement. Today, the pitch gets 15.3 inches of horizontal break.

“That changeup’s special,” Philadelphia Phillies shortstop Trea Turner said last month.

Skubal has been so good it is difficult to believe that this time one year ago, he was just returning to the mound.

“He’s an incredible worker,” Tigers manager A.J. Hinch said. “An incredible learner. … The time off wasn’t just time off. It was time well spent.”

Skubal and Wakefield talk before and after each outing. They catch up between starts via Xbox. Confident as Skubal can be, Wakefield thinks even Skubal was surprised at how quickly his game came together.

“He knows in his heart he’s a good player,” Wakefield said. “But I don’t know if he thought (last season) maybe he was just on a good run or didn’t know how long it would last. I don’t think he truly believed he was that guy.”

This spring, though, Wakefield started seeing something different. More struts around the mound. More fearless pounding of the strike zone. A different level of focus.

“I think something kind of changed in him a little bit,” Wakefield said. “I think he knows now he is that guy.”

Since July 4, 2023, Skubal has been, statistically, the best starting pitcher in all of baseball. He leads the game in fWAR (6.2), FIP (2.42) and WHIP (0.92). Only Corbin Burnes has bested Skubal’s 2.60 ERA over his past 32 outings. Once a pitcher who could struggle with count leverage, Skubal ranks second in MLB with a first-pitch strike rate of 71.6 percent.

“That may have been the best pitching performance we’ve seen so far this year,” Pittsburgh Pirates manager Derek Shelton said May 29, after Skubal threw first-pitch strikes to 22 of the 25 batters he faced.

This season, the confidence has translated into more displays of emotion. Skubal has not been afraid to jaw at umpires. He has intimidated opponents. He has roared after big strikeouts.

“That’s the Skubal in him,” Russ said.

Comfortable in his skin, efficient in his delivery, ruthless with his stuff, Skubal was named an All-Star for the first time Sunday, one more flag-plant in his ascension to the game’s elite tier of starting pitchers.

“The way he attacks the strike zone and what he’s developed into, it’s not always been that way for Tarik,” Hinch said. “It’s not been a magic carpet ride.”

(Top photo: Andy Lyons / Getty Images)

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