Porcello Pitching His Way to Toledo

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This wasn’t supposed to be the problem.

The Tigers were supposed to be a team with flaws, but the starting rotation wasn’t to be one of them, at least not the top three.

I saw something that shocked me quite a bit this morning. The Tigers have one starter with an ERA under four. That starter is Dontrelle Willis.

Every member of the Tigers starting staff has now made at least four starts. If you take away Willis’ one inning relief outing in Texas, Willis has an ERA of 3.13 in his four starts. Max Scherzer is next best at 4.23. Then comes Justin Verlander (5.53), Jeremy Bonderman (6.97), and finally Rick Porcello (7.91).

Detroit is last in the league in starters ERA, last in quality starts, last in starters innings pitched.

Of course, it’s still early. At this point in the year, one bad outing can send your ERA through the roof. You have to look more closely to see trends and to see if there should be improvement in the near future.

Take Verlander for example; Last season, JV posted an ERA of 9.00 through four starts. In those games, he generally pitched well, but ran into trouble he could throw his way out of in one or two bad innings per game. This season, Verlander’s numbers are bit better, but he hasn’t been able to keep his pitch counts anywhere near where they should be. It has been commonplace for Verlander to throw 30 or more pitches in an inning, usually the first inning, then get gradually better as the game progresses.

Bonderman is another example of how an ERA can get blown up. In his first start of the year, Bonderman allowed one run in five innings. Two starts later, he tossed a “quality” outing by allowing three runs in six frames. In between those two starts, he was lit up for eight earned in just four innings. It takes a lot of zeroes to make up for an outing like that.

In truth, Bonderman, while not pitching deep enough into games at this point, has been okay to pretty good in three of his four starts, yet has an ERA approaching seven. He has been certainly good enough to win in three starts and terrible in one.

Scherzer had four straight good outings before being touched up in his last effort. His ERA is likely pretty close to where you’ll find it at the end of the year. I have no worries about him at this point. No, he won’t contend for the Cy Young, but he should be better than average.

Then there’s Porcello. After a tremendous rookie campaign where he won 14 games and was the second best pitcher on the team in the second half (and second best to Verlander is nothing to be ashamed of), Porcello had a great camp in Lakeland and seemed primed for another giant leap forward this year. He was good in his first start, a five inning, two-run performance against Cleveland, but since then has gotten progressively worse.

Porcello has allowed an alarming 28 hits over his past three starts, working just 14.1 innings and yielding 15 earned runs. During that span, opponents are batting .424 against him, getting on base nearly half the time, and have posted an OPS of 1.018. This is not a good trend.

Generally speaking, I’m not too worried about four of these guys. Verlander, everyone assumes, will straighten himself out. His last start was his best so far and if he follows last season’s blue print, he should be again among the better pitchers in baseball. Scherzer and Bonderman will give you pretty good efforts on most days, neither is an ace, but both have the ability to win more than they lose.

Of course Willis is yet a wild card, even if he has been the best starter on this staff so far, and he has. There’s too much baggage, too much history to start assuming that he’ll still be in the rotation come July, let alone still be getting hitters out with any consistency. I like what I’ve seen so far, and I may be the biggest Dontrelle apologist in the Tigersphere, but every time he pitches well, it still seems like we’re just waiting for the other shoe to drop. I hope that changes soon.

No, the biggest worry isn’t Willis, it’s Porcello.

It’s tempting to say that Porcello is reminding me of Armando Galarraga a season ago. Tempting, but that wouldn’t be accurate. Galarraga began last year with a tremendous April before falling into a habit of pitching from behind. With each start he lost more and more confidence, eventually winding up out of the rotation, and out of the big leagues. We’ll get back to him in a bit.

Porcello really hasn’t had the same issues.

It’s not that Porcello has had to give in to hitters once he’s getting behind, like Galarraga did so often, it’s more that Porcello isn’t commanding the ball down in the zone. Simply put, his sinker isn’t sinking.

Sinkerballers must get the ball down to be effective. All too often this year, Porcello has left the ball up and over the plate, not only with his sinker, but with his other pitches as well. It’s really an issue of command, certainly something that can be corrected.

But how long is too long to wait?

Porcello is just 21 years old, by all rights, he should be facing AA hitters this season, not going through the rigors of a major league schedule. Porcello has made it this far this fast by being more mature than most pitchers his age, then most pitchers with five years of service time, even.

But he hasn’t struggled, really ever, in his professional career.

How he reacts to these struggles is an unknown. If he redoubles his efforts to adjust to hitters now that they have adjusted to him, he can turn it around and have another good season. If he can’t make that adjustment, it will interesting to see just how long of a leash the Tigers give him.

Most of us had figured that if Galarraga could get his mind right in Toledo, he would eventually reclaim a rotation spot in Detroit. So far, he has been very good with the MudHens. In 24 innings, he has walked just four while striking out 20. He’s 3-1 with an ERA of 2.22 and a WHIP of 0.822.

What happens if Galarraga continues to shine while Porcello struggles? Would the Tigers have the stones to replace one with the other? For the sake of the season, and perhaps for the confidence of a still very young right hander, I hope they do.