Phillies Season Preview: Spencer Turnbull set to prove himself in the bullpen

According to projections, the right-hander could play a pivotal role as a backup starter and as a member of the bullpen this season.
Philadelphia Phillies Photo Day
Philadelphia Phillies Photo Day / Kevin C. Cox/GettyImages

The next player in our Philadelphia Phillies 2024 Season Preview Series is pitcher Spencer Turnbull.

Previous season previews: José AlvaradoAndrew BellattiAlec BohmConnor BrogdonNick CastellanosRodolfo CastroKody ClemensJake CaveDylan CoveySeranthony DomínguezDarick HallKolby AllardBryce HarperJeff HoffmanOrion KerkeringRafael MarchánBrandon MarshYunior MartéMichael MercadoMax CastilloNick NelsonAaron NolaLuis OrtizCristian PacheJ.T. RealmutoJohan RojasMichael RuckerWhit MerrifieldCristopher Sánchez, Kyle SchwarberEdmundo SosaGregory SotoBryson Stott, Matt Strahm, Garrett Stubbs, Ranger Suárez

We'll look back at Turnbull's 2023 performance and then examine where he might end up this season using the popular Steamer and ZiPS projection systems, which can be found on FanGraphs.

Spencer Turnbull 2023 stats and 2024 projections

2023 Stats: 7 G, 7 GS, 31 IP, 0-0 record, 7.26 ERA, 5.55 FIP, 1.68 WHIP, 24 SO, 15 BB, 0.0 fWAR

2024 Steamer: 41 G, 8 GS, 78 IP, 4-4 record, 4.28 ERA, 4.38 FIP, 1.34 WHIP, 67 SO, 27 BB, 0.8 fWAR

2024 ZiPS DC: 41 G, 8 GS, 67 IP, 3-5 record, 5.67 ERA, 5.21 FIP, 1.48 WHIP, 62 SO, 29 BB, 0.1 fWAR

Spencer Turnbull 2024 season preview

On Feb. 14, the Phillies officially announced they came to terms with right-hander Spencer Turnbull.

As mostly a starter for the Detroit Tigers, Turnbull posted a 12-29 record, 4.55 ERA, 3.82 FIP and 1.359 WHIP over 302 1/3 innings from 2018 through 2023.

In May 2021, Turnbull threw the eighth no-hitter in Detroit Tigers history. Two months later, he had Tommy John surgery and missed the full 2022 season as he recovered. His journey back to the big leagues hasn't been smooth. In seven starts last season, he posted a 7.26 ERA in 31 innings.

In spring training so far this year, the right-hander has only seen action in one game heading into Friday. In those two innings, he looked lights-out, giving up no hits and no runs with four punchouts and no walks.

Turnbull's strikeout-to-walk ratio is projected to improve

One of the biggest focus areas for Turnbull is commanding pitches.

While working his way back from surgery last season, Turnbull put up the worst strikeout-to-walk ratio of his career (24 to 15). His 16.6 percent strikeout rate was well below his career average of 21.3, while his 10.3 percent walk rate was the second-highest of his career — behind only the 12 percent mark he posted in 2020.

With two minor league teams in 2023, he was a little better, with 30 strikeouts and 11 walks, but he'll need to miss more bats more consistently to stick with the Phillies in an extended capacity.

He's coming off a career-high WHIP (1.68), but Steamer (1.34) and ZiPS DC (1.48) are projecting that number to shrink a little. Overall, though, he'll likely need to improve his rate of 7.0 strikeouts and 1.5 home runs per nine innings to carve out a role with the team.

According to Scott Lauber of The Philadelphia Inquirer, one of the team's superstars believes in Turnbull's ability to contribute to the club. First baseman Bryce Harper said: "Spencer could be a diamond in the rough. He's got some nasty stuff."

Lauber noted Turnbull has been working with pitching coach Caleb Cotham on a new offering — a sweeper.

He's been limited this spring because of an illness, but heading into Friday, he's already tossed the new pitch 11 times out of 28 total pitches, according to Baseball Savant.

The pitch has accounted for three of his four strikeouts and is averaging 11.1 inches of glove/arm side movement. He's also averaging 85.2 mph for the sweeper.

Turnbull's biggest 2024 role likely to come from the bullpen

The 31-year-old is projected to spend time in both the bullpen and the starting rotation this year.

Steamer and ZiPS DC projections both have him starting eight games and making 33 relief appearances. Steamer has him slated for more innings (78) than ZiPS DC (67), but either would be his second-most innings pitched in the majors, behind the 148 1/3 innings he tossed for the Tigers back in 2019.

The FanGraphs' depth chart projections have Turnbull as the sixth starter, behind Zack Wheeler, Aaron Nola, Taijuan Walker, Ranger Suárez and Cristopher Sánchez.

Out of the bullpen, his projected 33 innings would rank 10th on the team, behind José Alvarado, Jeff Hoffman, Gregory Soto, Seranthony Domínguez, Matt Strahm, Orion Kerkering, Connor Brogdon, Yunior Marté and Dylan Covey — though Covey will start the season on the injured list with a shoulder injury.

In order to be effective in relief situations, he'll need to keep his ERA under control.

After posting a career-high 7.26 ERA in 2023, ZiPS DC is projecting that to fall to 5.67 and Steamer is projecting 4.28. And he'll need to retain control in high-leverage situations. According to Baseball Reference, Turnbull pitched in high-leverage situations in seven games last year, striking out nine, walking one and keeping opponents to a .231 batting average.

As Todd Zolecki of noted, Turnbull does have one minor league option, though because of his service time, he has the right to refuse any assignment. With his limited action in spring so far this year, it's possible he will start the season with the Triple-A Lehigh Valley IronPigs and get ready for a call-up as the season progresses, though Covey's injury could increase the possibility of him going to Philly from the get-go.

Turnbull, who only signed a one-year contract with Philadelphia, will be looking to prove to teams around the league that he's capable of performing at a consistently high level as he gets further away from the Tommy John surgery.

The Phillies need pitching depth, and while Turnbull has the experience and ability to step in and start if and when needed, he's also a player fans can expect to slot in as a long reliever out of the bullpen.