HOUSTON — There are probably a bunch of crumpled-up scouting reports on Angels pitcher Tyler Skaggs in trash cans across America this weekend.
The 22-year-old left-hander made six exhibition starts this spring, featuring a 94-mph, four-seam fastball, curve and changeup. But it was a sinking two-seam fastball that was most responsible for the eight-inning gem he threw in a 5-1 victory over the Houston Astros in Minute Maid Park on Saturday night.
“That’s what you have to do — you have to keep your secret weapon in your back pocket,” Skaggs said after giving up one run and four hits, striking out five and walking one in a masterful 95-pitch performance. “I don’t think any of the teams knew that. I don’t even think the Angels knew I had one, honestly.”
They do now, as does the rest of baseball. Skaggs, acquired from Arizona in the three-team Mark Trumbo trade in December, said he threw the two-seamer “90% of the time” Saturday night, using it to set up his curve and changeup.
“That’s why you see all those 90- and 91-mph [fastballs] instead of 93 and 94,” Skaggs said. “They kept swinging at it, so why not get outs early in the count and throw some two-seamers? I threw it in the bullpen and it was good. It turned out to be a plus pitch for me today.”
Pitch efficiency and command were not a strength for Skaggs all spring or the Angels in their first four games. Skaggs walked 12 in 232/3 spring innings, and the Angels combined to walk 22 in their first 36 innings, with Manager Mike Scioscia saying it was “an eye-opener for us to see our guys struggle that much with command.”
Skaggs needed 98 pitches to get through 32/3 innings of his Freeway Series start against the Dodgers on March 29, but after working with pitching coach Mike Butcher in a pair of bullpen sessions to make some slight mechanical adjustments, he threw first-pitch strikes to 17 of 29 batters and 63 total strikes Saturday night.
“My leg kick wasn’t as violent, and I tried to follow through with my body facing home instead of spinning out,” Skaggs said. “Just some small changes that helped me throw more strikes down in the zone. I think everything kind of clicked tonight. I couldn’t ask for a better first outing.”
Skaggs, the youngest Angels starter to go eight innings since Tyler Chatwood, then 21, against Cleveland on May 6, 2011, also showed excellent poise.
After the Astros scored a first-inning run when John McDonald couldn’t glove a vicious line drive off the bat of Jesus Guzman — a play that was ruled an error — Skaggs struck out Chris Carter to end the inning.
In the third, with the score tied, 1-1, Houston leadoff batter Jonathan Villar bunted to first baseman Albert Pujols, who fielded the ball, spun and flipped a throw to first.
One problem: Second baseman Howie Kendrick wasn’t near the bag, and the ball rolled toward right field for an error that allowed Villar to take second. Skaggs didn’t flinch, getting Robbie Grossman and Jose Altuve to ground out to end the inning.
The Astros put two on with one out in the fifth. Skaggs’ response? He got Villar to fly to right and Grossman to ground to second.
“Some things could have gone the other way, but when Tyler had to make some pitches, he did,” Scioscia said. “Things could have unraveled if he had that miscue, he walks a guy, gets behind the next guy and puts a fastball in there to hit.
“I think he was better equipped tonight because he had great action on his fastball, he was in the zone with it, he pitched to contact and got out of trouble.”