One of the common knocks on the recently turned 23-year-old Rick Porcello is his inability to induce strikeouts. Last season for example, he posted his highest K/9 ratio of his career at 5.14. Out of 107 pitchers in the Major Leagues who threw at least 150 innings, only 13 guys had a weaker K/9 ratio than Porcello. Out of those 13 guys, only two of them had ERAs under 4.00 – Joe Saunders and Mark Buehrle.
Perhaps the strongest argument for Porcello’s poor strikeout totals, is the diminished life on his fastball. Scouting reports had this kid mid to upper 90’s in high school, and in 2011, for much of the year we watched the fastball cross the plate at 90-91.
Despite some notions that Kid Rick’s best approach should be to lean heavily on his sinker and hope our less-than-average in-fielders take care of the rest, Porcello does have the tools to miss more bats.
Going back and watching some of Rick’s starts, you begin to see two different versions of the young right-hander. There’s the guy who eased back on the fastball (90-91) for much of the season, and then there is the guy who occasionally found the power to dial it up to 94. Either way Porcello can induce whiffs – it just takes a combination of choosing the right pitches to throw in certain spots and in turn executing.
We’re going to go back and look at a couple of starts where Rick really had his stuff working for him. One start I picked is a road start in Cleveland back on April 30th where he wasn’t throwing quite as hard. The second start will look at will be game four of the ALCS against Texas. In this outing, Rick was dialing it up to 94 with some consistency. Porcello will never miss bats like Justin Verlander, but you might be surprised how many ways he can getting hitters out without them putting the ball in play. Granted, the data we are looking at here is a very small sample size, but as a 23-year-old, Rick has plenty of time to get better. Maybe he is working on some of the things I’m about to show you as we speak.
Lets start in Cleveland. Here are three at-bats where we will go pitch by pitch.
1. In this ab, he starts Santana off with a 88 mph fastball that begins inside but tails over the plate(0-1).
2. The next offering is a change up(78) that just misses outside(1-1). I’ll note, Rick’s change often has the action of a scaled-down 12 to 6 curve ball.
3. Now he goes with the change(78) right down the middle for a strike(1-2)
4. Pitch 4 is a four-seamer(89) up and in backing Santana out of the box(2-2).
5. Porcello gives him the fastball(89) that starts inside and tails over the plate at the knees for strike three.
In this at-bat, Santana never takes the stick off his shoulders. Rick, despite throwing in the low-90′s, still mixed not only the speeds but the angles and spots the ball went over the plate. Now, it’s important to note, on Santana’s next at-bat, Porcello started him off with the same first two pitches. Santana got comfy and drilled that outside change up over the wall in left. Thus, rehashing the notion you have to mix things up from ab to ab.
1. 88 mph sinker inside and at the knees for a called strike(0-1).
2. Change at 84 mph inside eats Marson up. Lou swings way late and pokes it foul(0-2).
3. Rick goes back to the sinker(88) inside at the knees and Marson watches it for a called third.
Two things to note here. For one, the sinker was going real well for Porcello on this particular day. And two, when Porcello threw the first sinker for strike one, it was obvious Marson wasn’t comfortable with the pitch and the location, so Rick wisely wasted no time going back to it on the third pitch.
1. It’s not very often, but Rick will still occasionally flash the curve. Here he throws one right down the middle at 75 mph for strike one(0-1).
2. On the next pitch, Porcello goes to a change(79) down and in the Choo rolls over it foul.
3. Rick catches Choo leaning over the plate looking for slow stuff and he gives him a little chin music – fastball(90) up and in(1-2).
4. Next, Porcello gives him another fastball (90) in on the hands that Choo muscles foul.
5. Finally, Porcello gives him a slider at 88 down and in that Choo half-cuts at for strike three.
So here’s a game where in the first three innings Porcello struck out batters with three different pitches. He wasn’t throwing hard on this particular day, but he was still missing bats. Not only was the sinker showing good life, but he was mixing his pitches nicely, changing eye-level, and basically making hitters look uncomfortable.
Let’s move on to that ALCS game four where Porcello was clearly amped up a little and there was some extra juice on the fastball.
1. Porcello starts off fastball(94) over the plate with a little tailing action(0-1).
2. The next pitch is a sinker(92) that Andrus swings over the top of(0-2).
3. Porcello doubles up on the sinker in the same location and Andrus jams it foul.
4. Next he gives him a slider at 88 in the dirt outside(1-2).
5. He goes back to the low slider, but this time brings it a little closer to the plate causing Andrus to chase and miss for strike three.
Porcello started this game off hot, and when you’re mixing the slider with the fastball that tails in to right-handers, that wears on hitters. As a hitter, it’s tough to stay balanced when you’re not sure if you should lean for the outside pitch, or guard against a fastball inside. Again, the key here is not only mixing the pitches, but serving them to the hitters in slightly different spots as well to change the look.
1. Fastball(92) right down the middle for a strike(0-1).
2. Sinker(88) in the dirt and Beltre swings right over it(0-2).
3. Fastball(94) tailing in to Beltre and he fouls it off.
4. Here, Porcello over-throws a sinker(93) that stays flat, but luckily it gets smacked foul.
5. Next he gives him a sinker in the dirt(1-2).
6. Then a slider in the dirt outside(2-2).
7. Porcello finishes him off with a sinker(88) right down the middle that Beltre is way out in front of.
This was great work by the kid here. Beltre, an agressive hitter, is definitely sitting fastball at the end after not seeing it for four straight pitches, and his eyes were as big as saucers when that last pitch was coming right down the middle. But Porcello was a step ahead of him, and he wasn’t going to give the beastly right-hander the pitch he wanted.
1. 92 mph fastball on the outside corner for strike one.
3. Porcello throws the fastball(94) a little farther outside and Napoli gingerly pokes it foul down the right field line.
4. Rick finishes him off with the fastball tailing up and in. Napoli flails at it awkwardly and misses.
Here’s another case like the Marson at-bat where Porcello/Avila notice a guy is in defense mode and they attack. Napoli is comfortable with the speed of the fastball after seeing it three straight times, but they put in a spot of the zone that he is simply not ready for.
Rick as he matures can definitely lean on his sinker to induce ground balls, but he can also help himself out by missing more bats. Normally it’s safe to say Porcello lacks electric stuff, but nonetheless he still has the tools to get strikeouts throwing at a lower velocity. With this mini-scouting report, you can see Porcello has multiple ways to finish hitters off. Perhaps with experience, he’ll find ways to repeat some of these successes a little more often.
Tune in next time when we look at the other end of the spectrum – When things go wrong for Rick.
Follow Mickey Brignall on Twitter @mickey_baseball