June 30, 2012; St. Petersburg, FL, USA; Detroit Tigers starting pitcher Rick Porcello (48) is congratulated by teammates after he pitched the sixth inning against the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field. Detroit Tigers defeated the Tampa Bay Rays 6-2. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-US PRESSWIRE

Rick Porcello Is The Ever Improving Tortoise

Rick Porcello has long been a point of contention amongst Tigers fans, despite the fact that he is just 23 years old. He is a veteran 23, as he is in the midst of his fourth professional season, and has accumulated over 600 major league innings under his belt. Every year, sites like this one, call upon Porcello to become that stud pitcher we all thought he would become when the Tigers swayed him away from college with the 27th pick in the 2007 draft. Comparisons to Josh Beckett were made, and we all bathed in the hype that surrounded those comparisons.

At least until the reality came that they were two very different pitchers.

The Tigers have never been shy about challenging players they believe to have superior talent. With that in mind, Porcello made his major league debut in 2009 at the yet to be ripened age of 20 years old. He then did what most Tigers fans have never seen from such a young pitcher…he more than held his own. Rick Porcello’s rookie season was a success by most standards. His 3.96 ERA and 14 wins was supposed to be just a glimpse of the immense talent the young hurler possessed, and 2010 was expected to be even better. How could it not? After all, with a year’s experience under his belt, he could only get better.

Reality set in for Porcello in 2010, and the frustration already started to seep into the talk of the young hurler. In 2010, Porcello’s numbers had risen from an ERA of 3.96 to 4.92 in one year. His record went from a winning one to a losing one, posting only 10 wins in 2010. “Where is the improvement?” many people wondered aloud. Patience never being a quality most baseball fans display when it comes to pitchers that are supposed to be front of the rotation pitchers.

The improvement in Porcello was there, it just took some looking, and was hidden in the land of  sabre-metric analysis. You see, that really good rookie season for a 20 year old was what most people would call lucky. With numbers like BABIP, we can see where pitchers either get lucky or unlucky. In 2009, Porcello had a BABIP of just .277, about 30 points less than normal. Perhaps that had much to do with the Tigers infield defense that included plus gloves from Brandon Inge, Adam Everett, and Placido Polanco. With Porcello being a ground ball pitcher, it makes sense. 2010 saw an increase to that normal .307 BABIP, therefore making Porcello less lucky, and causing a rise in his ERA.

Those who don’t follow advanced metrics chalked 2010 up as a sophomore slump. Those who do, noticed a decreasing walk rate, a stabilized K rate, and a FIP and xFIP that actually decreased slightly from that tremendous rookie season. Overall, Porcello’s fWAR remained static at 2 wins above replacement.

When the 2011 season rolled around, many analysts and fans looked for Porcello to be the key to the pitching staff. He now had two full big league seasons under his belt, and it was time to turn the corner and start being that ace many thought was wearing his Tigers uniform. Those who had those kind of expectations became sorely disappointed. Porcello returned to having a winning record in 2011, going 14-9, but was frustratingly inconsistent month to month. His ERA dropped from 2010 to 2011, but it was a minor improvement, going from 4.92 to 4.75.

It was clear from last year that fans have begun to have enough. Talk of trading the Tigers young hurler had begun, and I can include myself in that category. My patience like many was beginning to run thin. I fell victim to the expectations set forth for Porcello from the moment he was drafted, and those expectations were clearly unrealistic. Meanwhile, while many of us were boiling over our frustration pot, Rick Porcello improved once again in 2011 according to advanced metrics, if ever so slightly. His fWAR had now reached 2.7 for the year, an improvement over his first two seasons.

During the 2011 season, much of the focus revolved around Porcello and his K rate. He just didn’t, and doesn’t miss enough bats. But there was a step forward in his numbers. In 2010, Porcello had a K rate of 4.65 per 9 innings. In 2011, that number jumped to 5.14. His HR/9 fell, while his BABIP went up yet again, along with his ground ball rate. For the second consecutive season, his FIP and xFIP had dropped once again.

By the start of the 2012 season, I think most of us were resigned to Porcello not ever becoming a top of the rotation starter. He had seemingly lost velocity on his fastball from when he was 20 years old instead of increasing it when he was getting bigger and stronger. The numbers backed that idea up. From 2009 to 2011, Porcello lost one mph on his fastball, which believe it or not can be significant. However, 2012 has seen a bounce back. Porcello is now averaging 92.1 mph on his 4 seam fastall, which is the best for his career. Other numbers have followed.

So far in 2012, Porcello has seen yet another increase in his K rate. His GB% is up again, but so is his BABIP, the Tigers statuesque infield defense not helping matters any. His HR/9 has also seen another drop, the lowest of his career at .77/9. His ERA currently sits at 4.35, and his FIP and xFIP have seen yet another drop. I would venture to guess, there isn’t too many pitchers in baseball who have seen a decrease in all those numbers three years straight.

Rick Porcello is never going to miss a bunch of bats. He just doesn’t have a pitch that is plus enough to put hitters away, despite his ever so slowly improving slider. He is getting more swings and misses, but not at the rate of elite pitchers in the big leagues. He is likely never going to be a front of the rotation starter, and I think if we accept that, maybe we can appreciate his improvements, however slow and slight they may be.

Rick Porcello is getting better Tigers fans. I just wish he was a little  more rabbit and a little less tortoise.

I think we all do.

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