The Detroit Tigers are wearing a patch on their uniforms this year to honor the memory of the late Sparky Anderson. Current Tigers manager is apparently paying homage to Sparky in his own way; by making profound statements about his players the way Anderson used to do.
Sparky was famous for more than just his quick hook, colorful nickname and winning ways. Sparky once called former Tiger Chris Pittaro the “best rookie I’ve had in 15 years” and famously said of Barbaro Garbey “He’s another Roberto Clemente.” Leyland has taken up the comparison game as well early in camp this year by saying that Rick Porcello could be a lot like Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux, a couple of guys with better than 650 wins between them.
Glavine and Maddux, I remember when they were real young. They also figured things out and kept getting smarter and smarter.
They were a lot like Porcello. I think he’ll figure out for a long time how to get hitters out. He’s quietly a student of the game.
To be fair, Leyland isn’t saying that as definitively as Saprky would have said it, but make no mistake, Leyland believes it to be true. He’ll be the first one to qualify his remarks. I’m sure he’ll tell you that a lot has to happen before Porcello could be considered in a group so lofty. But Leyland is also right about the comparisons.
Porcello burst onto the scene as a 20-year-old and won 14 games for the 2009 Tigers. He struggled last season early, but came back and pitched pretty well down the stretch. Maddux debuted at the same age for the Cubs in 1986 and through his first full season the next year, he had accumulated only eight wins versus 18 defeats and had an ERA over 5.50. Glavine saw similar struggles in his first two seasons after breaking in as a 21-year-old for Atlanta in 1987. In his first full season, Glavine lead the National League in losses.
The similarities don’t end with wins and losses, nor should they. Porcello has fanned 4.7 batters per nine innings over his first two years while walking 2.4 per nine. Glavine’s numbers were significantly worse in his first two seasons. His walk rate (3.5) and strikeout rate (3.8) were nearly identical, which obviously is not what you want as a pitcher. Maddux struck out more batters per nine innings at 5.8, but he was also walking nearly twice as many (4.1) as Porcello has.
None of the three pitchers here were ever going to be considered overpowering. Maddux and Glavine built Hall of Fame resumés not only by maturing into pitchers who commanded the strike zone, but by largely avoiding the disabled list and by keeping hitters off balance with changes of speed and location. Porcello probably has the ability to throw harder than either of these two (although Maddux actually did throw pretty hard in his early days), and he’s already displayed more control than the famed duo did when they were young.
As Porcello matures, there is no reason not to see success in his future. Pitchers who pitch to contact as much as Glavine and Maddux did, and Porcello does, rely on their defense, but are largely at the mercy of luck. Sure you can cause a ball to be mis-hit by fooling a hitter, but even great “pitcher’s pitches” sometimes fall in, just as many line drives are hit right at a defender. In their first two years, Glavine saw opponents hit .286 an balls in play in each season. This was nearly 10 points below league average. He still had an ERA close to 5.00. Maddux was much more unlucky in his first two campaigns, as opposing batters hit .338 on balls in play. This lead, in large part to his high earned run average. Porcello has had mixed results thus far and his ERA has reflected that. In 2009, opponents hit .293 on in-play balls, five points below league average. Last season in that same scenario, Porcello was subjected to a .308 average against.
Is it too early to start engraving his plaque for the Hall? Of course it is. But Leyland’s comments aren’t without merit. It’s easy to forget how much Glavine and Maddux struggled in their first two years. neither of them really experienced the success that Porcello has enjoyed, especially in 2009, to the same point in their careers.
It’s also easy to forget that Porcello wasn’t even old enough to drink when he took the baseball world by storm. His struggles last season were, in all likelihood, a function of his age and a simple case of bad luck. Will he become a pitcher who has a career like those other two guys? Who knows. But he does have the talent to get there.