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Aug 30, 2012; Kansas City, MO, USA; Detroit Tigers starting pitcher Rick Porcello (48) walks off the field after being relieved in the sixth inning against the Kansas City Royals at Kauffman Stadium. Mandatory Credit: John Rieger-US PRESSWIRE

Detroit Tigers Rebound Candidates: Part 1

Rick Porcello. We have many months of offseason ahead of us and I’ll be running two series from now until March covering the Tigers we might expect (or at least hope) to do better in 2013 as well as those we might expect (or dread) to do worse. First on the list of guys we hope for more from next season is Rick Porcello.

I have been a Tigers fan since I was tiny and for the vast majority of that time “we’ll get ‘em next year” has been the only positive way to look at the team. As such “projections” are something that I’ve found myself naturally drawn to for a long time. Will we get ‘em next year? Is there any rational reason to expect that these guys can get ‘em next year? [The answer: not if Damion Easley is your best player] Now I find myself fascinated by the baseball equivalent of train wrecks – guys with decent track records and apparent talent who were given every opportunity and crashed and burned. Last year the three big candidates for “worst season” were Adam Dunn, Alex Rios and Chone Figgins. How do you guess whether any of those guys has anything left in the tank? We’re talking about situations that are genuinely rare, because guys who play that badly tend to fall out of the bottom of the league and never get a chance to bounce back. All three of them did get another chance and only Figgins really failed to make anything of it.

Going into 2012 we hoped for noticeably better results from Rick Porcello than he had put up in 2010 and 2011. He did increase his fastball velocity and his strikeout rate while inducing more ground balls and more weak pop ups. His FIP and xFIP dropped for the 4th straight year and he posted a career-high 2.9 (FIP-based) WAR. Based on Fangraphs “value” calculator, he was worth over $13 million to the Tigers in his first arbitration year. Nonetheless he found himself the odd man out for the playoff rotation and stands to potentially lose his rotation spot for 2013 – if the Tigers should re-sign Anibal Sanchez.

Why? Well… FIP loves Rick Porcello more than people who actually watch the games (like Dave Dombrowski). Porcello’s BABIP has also risen every single season of his career and hit an amazing .344 last year. I know part of that could be the Tigers poor defense (especially infield range) and part of that could be the BABIP-inflating large outfield in Comerica Park. But .344 is extraordinarily high – particularly for the “large sample” of 176 and a third innings from Rick in 2012. Over the 5 years to 2011 there were only a handful of (qualified) starters who managed full-season BABIPs in excess of .340. Kevin Millwood in 2007 & 2008, Scott Olsen in 2007, James Shields in 2010 and Livan Hernandez, Ian Snell and Nate Robertson in 2008. I should mention that all of those seasons were bad, worse than Porcello’s in terms of ERA, so to at least a certain extent Porcello may have gotten lucky as far as stranding guys goes.

Robertson is the case we Tigers fans are the most familiar with – and also the case that gives the least optimism for Porcello’s 2013. Robertson had always had some issues with the longball that kept him from being anything like an elite starter but in Nate’s 4 full seasons as a Tiger starter prior to 2008 – he put up BABIP numbers of .302, .279, .279 and .308. In 2008? .341 as his ERA ballooned to 6.35. In 2009 he spent a little time on the DL, a little time in the bullpen and got 6 more starts for the Tigers. His BABIP stayed high (.333) as did his ERA. In spring 2010 he was out of the organization. He bounced around a bit and made 18 mediocre starts in 2010 (5.95 ERA) but couldn’t stick with a big league club in 2011. Last I heard, he was pitching in one of the independent leagues. Rogo would know.

The key here is this: sometimes (especially when the sample size is small) stats – especially high-variance stats like BABIP – mostly reflect luck. Other times they reflect something genuinely wrong with your game – and it can be hard to distinguish luck from skill just by looking at numbers. A guy can rebound easily from bad luck, but he can also (potentially) rebound from flawed mechanics, injury, etc… too. For Robertson the problem was a loss of “stuff” for a probably physical reason – not luck. Other guys have bounced back from temporarily bad “stuff” (or a bad approach at the plate, bad swing mechanics) or injury – but Nate Robertson did not.

There is no reason to think that Porcello’s bad BABIP in 2012 was actually due to “luck” – the fact is that his pitches were just getting tattooed. While his BABIP has risen every year, so has his line drive rate – ultimately reaching 24.6% in 2012. Couple that with the fact that ground ball pitchers tend to have higher BABIPs (but get more double plays, allow fewer home runs and strand more runners) and the Tigers atrocious infield range and Porcello’s “expected” BABIP isn’t actually that far off his .344 mark. There is no reason to think that anything is “wrong” with Rick Porcello – though while by one measure (velocity) his stuff has improved by another measure (break) it has tanked. Michael Barr did an excellent piece for FanGraphs detailing exactly where Rick Porcello was going wrong in 2012: his slider wasn’t breaking much and it was getting absolutely crushed when he threw it. Barr maintained that Porcello’s slider was – in fact – so bad that he would improve his results simply by not throwing it. That is possible, but a guy without a slider is going to have a tougher time getting outs with his other pitches.

What it would appear that Porcello needs for 2013 is some intensive work with a talented pitching coach to either get a functioning slider back or figure out some way to replace it (and make better use of his newfound fireballing). That’s a little bit of a tougher sell for an optimistic fan than hoping Porcello has better luck or gets healthy, but it’s something.

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