Over his last seven starts, Rick Porcello has posted a 3.48 ERA with 44 strikeouts in 44 innings pitched. He has arguably been the second-best starter for the Detroit Tigers over that stretch, behind Max Scherzer. But thanks in large part to a lack of offensive support, his record of 2-1 over that stretch doesn’t reflect his solid performance.
The Detroit offense has averaged a healthy 5.5 runs per game in those pitched by one of their top four starters. But in support of their fifth starter, Porcello, they have scored an average of just 3.6. Two of their offensive shutouts have come with him on the mound, and they have lost four games he has started by just one or two runs.
While the Tigers never really play a defensive-minded game, one might reason that manager Jim Leyland has inadvertently sabotaged his offense in Porcello starts by playing reserves like Don Kelly and Ramon Santiago. But Kelly has only started three out of ten games Porcello has, and Santiago has been in for just two. That’s not the problem.
One lineup feature that could be a significant factor is the catcher. Alex Avila, batting .182, has caught Porcello eight times, while Brayan Pena, who has started behind the plate 17 times and is hitting .291, has caught him only twice. Indeed, in games with Porcello throwing, Avila has gone 2-for-22 (.091) at the plate with two singles, five walks, nine strikeouts, one run, one batted in, and three double plays. That’s dismal production.
Of course, you can’t blame the woes of the Tiger offense with Porcello on the mound solely on one player. You also have to consider that Avila’s catching has a bit to do with the way Porcello pitches. But Avila has created a sort of black hole in the lineup, leaving 15 runners on in addition to the ones he has erased on doubles plays.
Beyond him, the issue is a bit more complicated. Porcello has generally matched up with sub-par pitchers—guys like Mike Pelfrey, Mark Buehrle, Garrett Richards, and Kevin Gausman. The best he has faced this year are Kris Medlen, Zach McAllister, Nick Tepesch, and Jeanmar Gomez. Against those pitchers, players like Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder, and Victor Martinez should be picking up any slack Avila may create.
It seems like a longstanding and mysterious trend that the Tigers struggle against mediocre pitchers. Maybe it’s a myth, as there aren’t really accessible stats to support the idea. Maybe it will balance out as the season goes on, and Porcello will win the games he deserves. For now though, maybe his catcher could buy him dinner once or twice.