April 21, 2012; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Tigers starting pitcher Rick Porcello (48) pitches during the first inning against the Texas Rangers at Comerica Park. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-US PRESSWIRE

Rick Porcello: What Went Wrong

Over the first two weeks of the 2012 season, fans of the Detroit Tigers were treated to the version of Rick Porcello we’ve only seen in transient spells—the one we’ve waited for since his draft in 2007 and subsequent touting as the next Roy Halladay. He was effective and efficient in shutting down first the Tampa Bay Rays, then the Chicago White Sox, compiling a 1.84 ERA in 14.2 innings of work.

Then the Texas Rangers—those explosive, well-rounded pests—happened. Before recording a single out on Saturday afternoon, Porcello found himself down 4-0 with the bases loaded. By the time the massacre of Porcello finished—with nobody retired in the second inning—the Rangers had tagged him with nine runs, eight of which were scored as ‘earned.’

So what went wrong? The first thing I notice as I look at the BrooksBaseball.net PitchFX Tool is that he abandoned his four-seam fastball almost completely; departing from the pattern seen in his first two starts, when he selected it 11.96% of the time and 32.32% respectively, he used it 3.92% of the time—or twice in 51 pitches. Those four-seam fastballs he didn’t throw were, predictably, replaced by those of the two-seam variety; the selection rate for Porcello’s bread and butter offering went from 54.35% to 35.35% then all the way up to 64.71% today.

There’s not enough evidence to support the notion I offered as a suggestion earlier on Twitter that Porcello threw too often in the strike zone. 81.82% of his 33 sinkers (or two-seam fastballs) were strikes, compared to 82% and 71.43% respectively in his first two outings. It’s the same story for his 12 sliders, which were in the zone 58.33% of the time, again between the strike rates for that pitch in his first two starts. (Sinkers and sliders accounted for all but six of his pitches Saturday.)

Porcello’s changeup, which he went to only four times, was his only positive pitch Saturday according to linear weights, with a score of -0.0313 (negative scores indicate more effective pitches). His worst pitch by that measure was his slider, which generated a purely awful 2.9816 rating. He could have managed if the slider had been his only problem. In fact, he did so when the pitch achieved a 1.7794 rating in Chicago.

The poor slider Porcello possessed is interesting. Speed-wise, it changed virtually none. Its movement did take an odd turn, though; it was normal vertically, but by horizontal movement, the pitch has progressed game to game from 0.44 to 0.15 to -0.44. To my knowledge, that means the pitch, in Porcello’s first start, darted outside, away from right-handed batters, and in his recent start it instead cut inside, towards them.

His sinker, though it generated bad results (1.9040 linear weights compared to -1.6809 and -2.0737 in starts one and two), did not depart from the norm and though I can’t seem to find a graph that supports this, watching the game I was okay with how he located it. (Of the 12 balls the Rangers put in play off Porcello, nine were ground balls—if not for one deflected by the pitcher and one misplayed that could easily have resulted in a double play, the first frame could have ended closer to 2-0 than 8-0.) Porcello threw few blatant mistake pitches, but Texas made the most of them.

My conclusion: Porcello probably found gripping his slider problematic in the Michigan cold and, even more dooming, encountered an inconceivably hot Texas offense. There to compound his struggles was the uncharacteristically poor defensive play of Brandon Inge. Above all though—and you may have heard Mario Impemba and Rod Allen tell you this already—he renounced his four-seam fastball.

The problems that were there for Porcello (again, fewer than the box score suggests) should be easily remedied assuming his confidence is there in his next game. That will likely come Thursday afternoon against the Seattle Mariners, who will be lacking aplomb themselves not a week removed from playing the role of Phil Humber’s perfect game victim.

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Tags: Brandon Inge Detroit Tigers Rick Porcello

  • valordesign

    Excellent write up, I wish more articles would go into this type of analysis for pitching performances. I was a big believer that this year would be a break out year for Porcello, and I still believe that. This took a bad turn, but if he can get back to effectively mixing the pitches like he did in the first two outings, I’m not worried, I think he’s still going to be a solid middle of the rotation pitcher, when he gets back on track.

  • littlestclouds

    I wonder if Porcello might have backed off the four-seam fastball because of the lineup he was facing and ended up shooting himself in the foot.  It seems really drastic and deliberate on his part to all but abandon the pitch.
    He also said after the game that he didn’t pitch inside aggressively enough and, as a result, the Rangers hitters had no fear.  I think Adam Wilk encountered the same problem as well.

    • garretkc

       @littlestclouds Yes, I thought he could have pitched inside more as well, though the strike zone charts I had were too messy to say that definitively.

  • sportz

    Great job Garret, one of your best. Bottom line, Rick Porcello has terrible secondary pitches, we need to face that, it’s an old lament and unfortunatley a problematic, true lament.

    Wezner and I both think he should abandon the slider and go back to his curve ball.

  • funkytime

    I think the main reason he went with more two-seamers is because from the 2nd batter until he finally got his 2nd out he was constantly in a double play scenario.  And given all the ground balls he was getting, I can’t really blame him for that.

    • garretkc

       @funkytime Good point. Something to watch–hitters jumping all over him in potential double play situations. Too small of a sample to draw any crazy conclusions, but it’s at least a little interesting that Porcello has faced 11 batters this year with a runner on first and less than two outs and has yet to induce a double play.

      • funkytime

         @garretkc I think that says more about the defense than Porcello.  If he wasn’t getting ground balls it’d be a different story.

  • Sam Genson

    a bit late in commenting (ok, VERY late in commenting).  I wonder if Porcello and Scherzer suffer from the same problem of overthinking and not trusting their stuff.  It seems this happened to Verlander when he was younger – now he trusts his pitches and is not afraid to challenge hitters.  Porcello seems to go for the easy out and that will not work against certain teams.
    It would be interesting to see/hear why he has gone away from his curve and his 4 seamer.