Oct 5, 2013; Oakland, CA, USA; Detroit Tigers relief pitcher Rick Porcello (21) enters the game against the Oakland Athletics during the ninth inning in game two of the American League divisional series playoff baseball game at O.co Coliseum. The Oakland Athletics defeated the Detroit Tigers 1-0 with a walk off win. Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Analysis; Detroit Tigers Starter Rick Porcello


Jun 30, 2013; St. Petersburg, FL, USA; Detroit Tigers starting pitcher Rick Porcello (21) throws a pitch against the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

While it turns out he’s not the Second Coming of Justin Verlander after all, Rick Porcello, selected in the first round of the 2007 MLB draft by the Detroit Tigers, has nonetheless been a steady big league performer the last five years.

The 6’5″, 200 pound Porcello, with a fastball in the mid-90′s, was the consensus number one high school prospect that year. He fell to the Tigers at pick number 27 because he was being advised by uber-agent Scott Boras and had a scholarship in hand to the University of North Carolina. He was perceived by most major league teams to be virtually unsignable.

The Tigers waited patiently for Porcello to fall to them, then signed him to a four year, seven million dollar “over slot” deal, incurring the wrath of MLB Commissioner Bud Selig in the process.

No doubt Porcello, an honor student at Seton Hall Preparatory School in West Orange, New Jersey, could do the math:

Big Time Arm + Big Time Agent + Big Time Contract = Big Time Expectations

Though the other elements of the equation have remained constant throughout Porcello’s professional career, the “Big Time Arm” part has been largely missing in action, at least in the minds of many Tiger fans. Some might even go so far to say his arm has been downright “rickety” at times.

With this backdrop, let’s take a quick look back at the still young (he turned 25 last month) Tiger starter’s career and where he stands as we look forward to the 2014 season.

2008-2012

Porcello transitioned well to professional baseball while spending the entire season at high Class A Lakeland in 2008. There he pitched 125 innings, had an ERA of 2.66 and a WHIP of 1.19. His secondary numbers were less impressive, though, as he had only 5.18 K/9, a BABIP of .270, and a FIP of 3.83.

It was also early in 2008 that Porcello revealed he was not a mid-90′s fastball guy, but was more likely to sit in the low 90′s. Ouch. I guess Justin Verlander’s number one starter status would be safe for the foreseeable future.

Porcello, though, impressed the Tigers in spring training in 2009 and went north with the big club as a starting pitcher. He validated that decision by starting 31 games, pitching 170 innings, and finishing with a 14-9 record, a 3.96 ERA, and a WHIP of 1.34. His secondary numbers were once again concerning, though, as he pitched to a .277 BABIP and 4.77 FIP, with a K/9 ratio of only 4.69.

Porcello suffered from the sophomore jinx in 2010, pitching 162 innings, with a 10-12 record, an ERA of 4.92 and a WHIP of 1.39. His BABIP was .307 and FIP was 4.31, while his K/9 ratio descended to a career low 4.65. He was also temporarily demoted to Toledo during the season due to ineffectiveness.

In 2011 Porcello had a similar year statistically to 2010, but improved his record to 14-9. His K/9 ratio improved slightly to 5.14.

In 2012 Porcello gave up more hits than any pitcher in the American League, 226, despite pitching only 176 innings. He went 10-12 again, and pitched to a 4.59 ERA. His FIP was significantly lower at 3.91, while his WHIP was a lofty 1.53.

2013

After being the subject of myriad trade rumors in the offseason following his mediocre 2012 season, Rick Porcello returned to the form of his promising rookie year in 2013. He went 13-8, with a 4.32 ERA and a WHIP of 1.28, and comported himself well in the number five slot in one of baseball’s strongest rotations. His BABIP was .315, and his FIP a solid 3.53. Most impressive was his K/9 rate of 7.22, by far his career best.

The Repertoire

Porcello’s pitch mix is based on his power sinker, which averages 91 mph and is thrown a little over 40% of the time. He also works in a four seam fastball at 92 mph, which he throws once every five pitches or so. His main off speed pitches are a curve and a change-up, each thrown about 15% of the time. Although its frequency has greatly decreased from past years, he also still throws an occasional slider.

2014

So what can we expect from Rick Porcello in 2014?

Optimists can point to three positive trends which bode well for him in 2014.

The first is Porcello’s adoption of the curveball to replace his much maligned slider, which occurred in 2013. This significantly improved his effectiveness against left handed hitters, who have torched him throughout his career. The results have been encouraging, as he had an ERA of 4.04 against them in 2013.

The second development in 2013 was Porcello’s dramatically elevated strikeout rate per nine innings. In 2013, this ratio jumped to 7.22, by far a career high and a vast improvement on 2012′s 5.46, his previous best performance. This points to Porcello’s continuing maturation as a pitcher, as he begins to miss bats with greater frequency.

The final factor, which may be the most important of all, is the new infield defense which will line up behind Porcello in 2014. As a sinker ball “pitch-to-contact” hurler, he is very dependent upon a mobile, bullet-proof infield to retire hitters. This is not descriptive of the quartet that played behind him the past two years. With young Nick Castellanos at third, the incomparable Jose Iglesias at short, newcomer Ian Kinsler installed at second, and a transplanted Miguel Cabrera at first, the Tigers will have a new and stronger defender at every infield position in 2014. For a sinker ball pitcher who is typically among the MLB leaders in percentage of induced ground balls, this is a welcome development.

Rick Porcello has suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous expectations from some precincts of Tiger fandom throughout his entire Tiger career. To be sure, there have been enough bouts of mediocrity along the way to frustrate even the most docile Tiger fan. To his credit, though, the taciturn Mr. Porcello has maintained his professionalism throughout and continued to pitch through the clutter. And though he has not scaled the heights of Mt. Verlander during that interim (very few have), what he has done is win no fewer than 61 games for a competitive franchise before marking his 25th birthday.

Every rotation thirsty for postseason play needs reliable back-end starters who compete and generally give their team a chance to win. Rick Porcello, of tender age and still improving, fits that mold well. With the trade of Doug Fister in November, he steps up a notch in the rotation hierarchy in 2014. If he continues to refine his craft along the same lines as 2013, it may not be his last step up the ladder.

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