CLEARWATER, Fla.—After years spent battling injuries, Spencer Turnbull finally feels like himself again. He feels like the dominant starter he was in college at Alabama, where he spent three seasons blowing fastballs past helpless hitters in the Southeastern Conference.
Three seasons removed from his final collegiate year, Turnbull is a different pitcher now. He’s got more weapons to use, a different delivery from which to deploy them and, lately, a new X-factor: Command. He struck out 157 over three seasons with the Crimson Tide, but he walked 111 as well.
Despite the spotty control, the Tigers liked enough of what they saw to pop Turnbull with their second-round selection in 2014 and hand him a $900,000 bonus. Injuries to his shoulder and elbow over the past two seasons have held him to just 127 innings (23.1 of which have come on rehab assignments with the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League).
He’s healthy now, though, and is beginning to remind people about just how nasty he can be.
“I feel like I’ve turned a corner or something. I feel like I’m throwing it the way I used to,” Turnbull said. “I’ve got that extra zip on the ball. It feels like it’s coming out a lot better lately. Just the fact that I’ve been able to go seven innings the last few times and not have any issues feels good.”
In his most recent start, opposite Clearwater (Phillies) and touted righthander Sixto Sanchez, Turnbull was brilliant. He slashed through opposing hitters with a lively fastball in the 92-96 mph range that touched 97 on multiple occasions. The pitch featured above-average cut life, which helped him induce nine groundouts against just four flyouts.
He backed the fastball with an array of offspeed pitches, including an 11-to-5 curveball in the mid-70s, a harder knuckle-curveball in the low 80s, a tight slider with short, cutter-type break in the 88-90 range and a changeup in the high 80s. He allowed just one run, struck out five and, most importantly for his development, didn’t walk anybody.
That improved control has been a trend since he returned from the disabled list after a bout of elbow soreness that cost him a month. In 43 innings since being activated, Turnbull has walked just nine hitters and no more than three in any outing. More than anything, that improved ability to throw quality strikes is what will help propel him to the next stage in his development.
“He’s doing a great job for us. He’s commanding all pitches,” Lakeland manager Andrew Graham said. “Everything he throws moves, but he’s getting better with command and that’s why he’s going deeper into games. If he can continue to improve his command of all pitches—pitch selection at times is questionable—but when he’s in tune with his command he’s getting a lot better.”
In order to improve that command, Turnbull made a few minor tweaks in his delivery. Specifically, he’s worked hard to stay more on-line to the target. He’s adjusted his stride to land more closed before when he delivers instead of flying open frequently, like he did at Alabama.
His repertoire now is more complete, too. He’s less of the pure fireballer he was in college and more of a pitcher with the kind of stuff that can both overpower and deceive.
“When I was at Alabama, I didn’t really have anything but a fastball,” Turnbull said. “I had a slider occasionally, but that was pretty much it. I feel like now I can at least somewhat command two or three offspeed pitches, so that’s a big difference.”
Another key difference is comfort. With injuries to his shoulder and elbow over the years, Turnbull had understandably been careful to let it fly like he can. For a stretch, it seemed like going full bore would only lead to another part of his body barking, another trip to the disabled list and more lost development time.
With those problems in the past, he said, he’s felt free over the last month or so to let it fly with kind of power and aggression he knows he can produce from his powerful, 6-foot-3, 215-pound frame.
“With the injuries and stuff I know they’re hesitant to push me,” he said. “I feel like I just want to show them that I can go out there and they can trust me every time I go out there.”