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The Riddle inside the Enigma inside the Mystery inside Rick Porcello

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Tom Gage recently published an article for the Detroit News arguing that Rick Porcello is 2011’s most important Tiger. While we might split hairs over the (perhaps) equal importance of Jhonny Peralta‘s glove or Austin Jackson‘s strikeouts, I doubt you’ll find anyone around here that downright disagrees. You don’t win division crowns because your studs do what’s expected of them (unless you were expected to run away with the thing) you win division crowns when your question marks become exclamation points. And question mark Mr. Porcello obviously is. So what exactly ought we expect from the Tigers’ third starter?

I was pleasantly surprised by Porcello’s rookie campaign, just like everyone else. But ever since I’ve been gnashing my teeth to hear him described as a third ace or even a known quantity. It’s his youth and his raw skills that give us all hope, not his accomplishments. That youth and lack of a track record make him exceptionally difficult to project. One thing I think we can say for sure: He Is Not Dwight Gooden! I hope that didn’t come as a brutal shock to anyone, but it had to be said.

There aren’t many pitchers to hit the majors as young as Porcello (and stick, for that matter) and Dwight Gooden is the comparable that they’ll always be given. Gooden turned 20 after his Rookie-of-the-Year campaign in 1984, Porcello turned 20 before he ever saw the bigs. Aside from the one year difference in age, both pitchers played a full season in A-ball and excelled – Gooden with a 2.50 ERA and Porcello with a 2.66. That’s basically where the similarity ends. In A-ball, Gooden averaged an absurd 14.1 strikeouts per 9 innings – Porcello averaged 5.2. For the Mets, Gooden struck out 11.4 per 9 in his rookie campaign with an ERA of 2.60 – just a hair over what he did in the low minors the season before. Porcello’s ERA ballooned from 2.66 to 3.96. To do that, Porcello got “lucky” on balls in play – he had a FIP of 4.77. Gooden wasn’t lucky, he was unlucky – his rookie FIP was 1.69! He wasn’t just “mature enough for the majors” his stuff was the filthiest in the bigs. Year 2 the divergence continued: Porcello suffered his anticipated regression to the mean, pitching a little better with a little less to show for it – Gooden won the NL Cy Young with a 1.53 ERA. At age 20.