Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Rick Porcello primed to fill Doug Fister’s role in rotation


On December 2nd, the Detroit Tigers traded starting pitcher Doug Fister to the Washington Nationals after just two and a half seasons of wearing the Old English D.  In that trade, the Tigers acquired two players that will contribute in 2014, utility infielder Steve Lombardozzi and reliever Ian Krol, as well as a pitching prospect in Robbie Ray.

None of those players will be able to fill the void in the rotation that Doug Fister left with his departure, so the Tigers have looked in-house.  Left-hander Drew Smyly, who was stellar out of the bullpen last year, will move to the rotation to give the Tigers a left-handed presence there.

But the question is, who replaces Fister’s production?  Who can we expect an improvement from in 2014? Fister compiled a WAR of 8.1 over his two full seasons (2012 and 2013) in Detroit which was good for eighth in the AL over that time period.  He also provided 24 wins in over 250 innings pitched during that stretch.  His 3.33 FIP, which approximates a pitcher’s ERA with an average defense behind him, was eighth among AL pitchers (over the 2012 and 2013 seasons) who have over 250 innings pitched, according to Fangraphs.

I understand why the Tigers traded Fister and kept Porcello; they didn’t believe they could resign Fister and he commanded more on the market than Porcello did.  Fister had pitched at an All-Star level during his tenure in Detroit, so they traded him when his value was the highest (some may argue the Tigers could have received more for Fister but that’s a different debate).  The Tigers also still have a “Big 3″ in the rotation with Justin Verlander, Scherzer and Anibal Sanchez.

Obviously, Verlander looks to improve on his rocky season (by his standards anyway) and Smyly should provide quality starts over the course of the season (8.52 K/9 in 2012 when he made 18 starts), but the main contribution to fill the void Fister left will have to come from Porcello.

When looking at Porcello’s careeer statistics, he already has 149 starts, over 850 innings pitched and 61 wins (second behind Clayton Kershaw among pitchers 25 or under) heading into his age-25 season.  Yet, he is only 25.  It feels like Porcello has been in Detroit forever and hasn’t moved up higher in the rotation, but he is what he is:  a ground-ball pitcher who needs the support of a solid infield defense, much like Doug Fister.

Let’s look at how the infield defense has improved this offseason for Porcello:

The Tigers lost second baseman Omar Infante to the Kansas City Royals, but they did acquire Ian Kinsler from the Texas Rangers in the Prince Fielder deal earlier this winter.  The hidden component of that trade is the improved defense provided by the departure of Prince Fielder.

Miguel Cabrera gets to move back to first base where his fielding percentage never dropped below .990 from 2008-11. Cabrera is also an upgrade over the departing Fielder, who had a defensive WAR of -2.2.

Rookie Nick Castellanos is expected to be the Opening Day starter at third base, his natural position, providing more defensive stability than the banged-up 2013 version of Cabrera did.  Moving to first base could also help Cabrera stay healthy throughout the season and into the postseason, unlike in 2013, even though he put up video game-type numbers in 2013 once again.

Shortstop Jose Iglesias also begins his first full season as a starter in the majors, and, from August through the postseason, it seemed that the Tigers’ left side of the infield let fewer ground balls leak through.

So, Dave Dombrowski has built a solid defensive infield for his pitchers to work with.  The Tigers do have a few swing-and-miss starters on the pitching staff, but the new-look infield defense can help the rotation in the long haul.  The 2014 Tigers’ defense gives the pitchers the confidence on the mound where they don’t always have to think, I need to strike every guy out.

Despite being a back-end starter for the Tigers, Porcello has quietly been a solid pitcher in the hitter-friendly American League over the past two seasons.  His 3.72 FIP is 13th best among pitchers (minimum 250 innings pitched) over the past two seasons, and his 6.2 WAR is 16th among AL pitchers.  Porcello’s ground-ball percentage of 54.2% was good for third in the AL during that time, ahead of Fister’s 52.9%.

Since 2010, Porcello’s ERA, FIP, WAR, K/9, BB/9, GB %, ERA+ and FIP+ have improved each year, never regressing in any of those categories.  Porcello is steadily improving year after year, and the Tigers shouldn’t expect anything different from him in 2014.

Porcello is still young and has many more prime years ahead of him, more than Fister could provide in the future as he awaits his age-30 season in 2014.  Look for Porcello to provide quality innings for the Tigers and possibly a breakout season for the righty.

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