Spencer Turnbull laughed a little when he reflected on his time rehabbing in the GCL.
He paused, contemplating what he’d learned on the difficult road back from rehab appearances, designed to help him recover from a shoulder injury that kept him out for the first three months of the season. He then spent another three weeks laid up with an oblique injury.
“Perseverance,” he finally said. “Just learning how to, as best as I can, stay focused on what I can do, even when it gets monotonous, or you’re frustrated and feel like you should be moving forward.”
In his second start for the Lakeland Flying Tigers, Turnbull, 23, held the Clearwater Threshers to one hit over five innings, allowing just one run. Lakeland pitching Coach Jorge Cordova said that he threw 58 pitched, 38 of them fastballs. Manager Dave Huppert liked everything he saw from the right-hander. “He had a real good feel for all his pitches. He located the breaking ball, back-doored them, he was hitting both sides of the plate with the fastball,” he said.
Huppert noted that Turnbull’s off-speed pitches—his slider and curveball—were both in good shape, and that he set them up with his fastball.
It was a strong outing, in a disappointingly shortened season. Turnbull viewed the start optimistically, noticing when he needed to re-channel his energy better than the first time around, on August 8th.
“Getting my feet back under me yesterday. It was my second High-A outing, so the first one was okay. It wasn’t bad. I just didn’t feel super sharp,” he said. “I felt gassed pretty early. Yesterday, I felt a lot stronger. I was getting used to the adrenaline and all that stuff that I didn’t have in the GCL, in the rehab starts.”
He hadn’t walked anyone to that point and said, “Knock on wood. Last year it felt like I walked a thousand people.”
A few days later, in his third start of the season, he walked three and allowed three earned runs.
The Tigers selected the Turnbull in the second round of the 2014 MLB June Draft, out of the University of Alabama. He began his pro career in 2014 splitting time between GCL and Class-A (short season) Connecticut. He finished the season with a 4.31 ERA/1.53 WHIP in 12 starts. He can run his fastball up to 98, and sits in the low- to mid-90s. While that ability to throw hard and fast is a gift from the baseball gods, it can also be a surefire way to fail. Turnbull recognized he wasn’t trusting his ability to get hitters out in other ways. When asked if he thought it’d be right to say he’s not feeling afraid to pitch to contact at this point, he answered emphatically.
“Definitely. I’m definitely different in attacking hitters. Last year, I was blowing it by everybody and struck everybody out. And every pitch I’d try to throw super nasty. And people would say to me for years, your stuff’s pretty good, try to get contact early, instead of trying to not let them touch it. That was my goal to change this year, and I just had to wait five months to put that plan into place,” he said.
That plan includes a healthy dose of patience, both on his part and from those around him.
“He has little details we have to fix. But I want him to get his feet wet,” said Cordova. “Yes, we’re going to adjust the delivery, but for now, I just want him to pitch and learn. He’s never been here in this league. If I were to see something really drastic, I would approach it. But not now.”
That patience has been particularly meaningful to Turnbull, who recalled that upon arriving in Lakeland, Cordova immediately reassured him of what was expected of him.
“What I appreciated the most was when I came in, he said to me, “I’m not going to mess with you. Once you get your feet under you a little bit, we’ll work on things.” I appreciated that he’s letting me work things out on my own a little bit, sink or swim, whatever happens,” Turnbull said.
The process of getting a feel back for his changeup has been difficult for Turnbull, and he admits it’s not moving the way he’d like the pitch to. But he’s mixing in his curveball again, and gaining confidence with his ability to throw it for strikes.
“The biggest difference this year is getting my curveball back in my pitch selection. My changeup isn’t as good as it was last year,” he said. “Last year, it wasn’t very good early on and then it got a lot better toward the end of the year. It’s going to take some time to develop that back.”
There’s so much to like, Cordova observes, that there’s no real worry about the time Turnbull’s development might take and what he’s lacking at the moment. “It’s not only talent, it’s feel for it, which means a lot,” Cordova said.
“He has a good feel for all his pitches,” he continued. “He has excellent feel for four different pitches. Especially with the breaking ball, the secondary stuff, he can throw for a strike in any count.”
The season is winding down and minor league teams are in the last leg of the season. Much has been proven and answered, but for Turnbull, whatever he’s done, or hasn’t yet done, he’s trying to keep a clear head. Digging down deep and drawing from what’s driven him and gotten him this far, Turnbull turned a little spiritual, while sounding downright disciplined.
“I’m trying to stay grounded and rooted,” he said. “You look forward, and focus on your dreams and the things you believe in.”