The Riddle inside the Enigma inside the Mystery inside Rick Porcello
By Chris Hannum
Alright, so having firmly established that Rick Porcello is not Dwight Gooden – who is he? (other than Rick Porcello) He isn’t a fireballing strikeout artist, and he’s very unlikely at this point to become one – whether or not his stuff is good enough for it. With 3 seasons under his belt, we can say with some certainty that what he is is a control artist that gets a lot of ground balls. Those are ‘old player skills’, though you rarely hear that term used to describe a pitcher. It doesn’t mesh with the progression we expect pitcher’s careers to take. We expect the minor leaguer (or the rookie) to be a Nuke Laloosh that relies on the fascist strikeout and the confidence that hitters simply cannot touch their stuff. When they hit the bigs they are met with the demon of ‘competent hitting’ and react in two ways: firing it down the middle of plate in a straight line a la Matt Anderson, and watching it’s long trajectory toward the left-field foul pole and/or fearing those competent hitters, nibbling at the plate and walking as many as they strike out. The adjustments that all pitchers have to make their first few years in the majors (if they are going to have a career in the majors) usually boil down to this: keep your walk totals and your BABIP simultaneously low. Toss it down the center and you won’t walk anyone, but it’ll get hit hard. Nibble and they won’t be able to make good contact, but they probably won’t have to to see first.
Rick Porcello had a BABIP of .277 as a rookie – he clearly wasn’t firing it down the heart of the plate and he wasn’t getting hit hard. His BB/9 was 2.74 – a little worse than his A-ball number, but a clear sign that he was not nibbling. He didn’t fear the competent hitter, and they weren’t giving him a reason to. In his second year, his BABIP swung a bit in the opposite direction – but was far from the .340 range that we associate with prospects that can’t adjust. His BB/9 decreased dramatically, to 2.1. We can’t, therefore, expect Porcello to progress like a ‘normal’ top-tier pitching prospect would (or wouldn’t). He doesn’t need to keep his walks and BABIP simultaneously low, that’s not his problem. Will he learn the art of the fascist strikout? That I doubt.
Lest I give you the impression that pessimism abounds where Porcello is concerned, I’ll leave you with this thought: What if Porcello’s adjustment to the bigs does follow the Nuke path? What if he doesn’t start striking out the league, he just walks fewer guys and keeps a BABIP below the mean? If I told you that my favorite pitcher to watch was a 20-year-old rookie, had a career BABIP of .281, ground ball rate of 51.5%, a BB/9 of 1.8 and a pedestrian K/9 of 6.01 (and he didn’t crack 6 per until his 6th season) who would you figure I was talking about?
Those numbers are very much in line with an optimistic projection for Rick Porcello, but they belong to Greg Maddux: owner of 355 career wins, 120 career WAR and a lock for the hall on his first ballot. Of course, not every control pitcher can be Maddux – but the Riddle of Rick Porcello at least lets you dream.
Check back after the Super Bowl for the follow up, examining the developmental paths of 19 and 20 year old rookies of the past few years.