I’ve already made the case for the Tigers NOT trading Rick Porcello – at least right now – but word is getting out that perhaps as many as a dozen teams have called on Porcello since the announcement of the Anibal Sanchez signing. The fact that Porcello has not yet been traded indicates that perhaps many of the seekers were hoping to buy low (too low) on the young starting pitcher, but as long as there are so many interested parties, a fairly strong possibility remains that he gets moved before the start of the season.
One of the prevailing thoughts among fans and media members – as has been cataloged on these electronic pages – is that the Tigers might look for a quality relief pitcher (particularly one with “closer potential”) as the return portion of a Porcello trade. It makes sense, sort of, because bullpen help is a quasi-need for the Tigers, but it also doesn’t make sense because Rick Porcello is himself a quality relief pitcher. Probably.
Porcello has, for his major league career, been very nearly a major league average starting pitcher. That type of pitcher carries a good deal of value, especially when we add in his age (he’ll be just 24), durability (no significant injury history to speak of), and cost controlled status (he has three arbitration years remaining, including this one). That’s why Dave Dombrowski’s phone has been ringing so much. He doesn’t appear to be the top-of-the-rotation guy that he was projected to be when he was drafted – a fact that has soured him to many a Tigers fan – but he’ll likely still become (or perhaps already is) a solid middle-of-the-rotation pitcher.
The thing about pitchers, though, is that they tend to perform better in relief than they do as a starter. As far as I can tell this happens for a number of reasons:
(1) Relievers are selected into the game (by the manager) for specific situations. We can (and sometimes do) gripe about how managers such as Jim Leyland use their bullpens, but relievers are typically afforded the platoon advantage more often than their starter counterparts are.
(2) Relief pitchers enter the game in short bursts and can expend their energy in more of an all-at-once fashion. There’s no need to save bullets for five or six innings down the road, because the game will be over by then (and they’ll have been removed well before then). Many pitchers show this in the form of velocity increase; Phil Coke, for example, threw mostly 90-92 mph as a starter in 2011, but was pitching at 94-95 mph when he was converted back to relief.
(3) Relief pitchers don’t (typically) see the same hitter more than once in a single game, so there’s no immediate memory of how his pitches look or move from the batter’s box. Justin Verlander can perhaps counteract this by sandbagging his fastball velocity early on (so to speak), but even Verlander performs worse as the lineup turns over, and, at any rate, Porcello is certainly not him.
We couldn’t isolate all of these variables if we considered how Porcello would perform in relief (as some of us here have previously recommended he do, this isn’t a new concept here) – we don’t know how he’d do in short bursts, for example – but we do know that he’s much better when seeing hitters for the first time. For his career, Porcello has allowed opposing batters to hit him for a .337 wOBA. That is a slightly below average line (from the pitchers’ perspective), but, when we consider only the plate appearances in which the batter is seeing him for the first time, that line falls to a pretty good .289 wOBA. That line itself isn’t elite for a relief pitcher, but consider the following career wOBA’s (relief only).
There’s basically no difference between Porcello the first time through the order and the careers of Octavio Dotel, Joaquin Benoit, or Jose Valverde. All guys who have been, on the whole, very reliable. And this doesn’t consider any boost in performance Porcello might receive from pitching in a short burst, and doesn’t account for the fact that Porcello has benefitted from the platoon advantage against only 44% of the hitter he’s faced while Dotel, for example, has had the platoon advantage 57% of the time.
Or, perhaps, we could consider this short list of relievers the Tigers have been “paired” with by some members of the media (career numbers again):
There’s simply no reason to expect that Porcello couldn’t perform similarly in relief as any of these guys, and he’ll be considerably cheaper in 2013 than either Perez or Hanrahan will be. And this is, more or less, Porcello’s downside we’re talking about here. If he were to not get any better than he is right now, he would still likely make a fairly good relief pitcher.
Why trade the young starter with potential remaining for a solid-but-not-elite reliever when you could keep him and have both?