Splitting Porcello

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Tonight’s game 4 is something of an undercard compared to yesterday’s marquee Verlander v. Sabathia pitching matchup. The Yankees will see what they can get from A.J. Burnett, whose ERA on the year is atrocious despite a high strikeout rate. There is a good chance that he’ll get hit hard and be out of the game before the 5th inning rolls around, but he could also run through the Tigers lineup like a buzzsaw – he has the stuff for it. Our Tigers will send in Rick Porcello, who has had his share of inconsistency this year. Porcello doesn’t have the 5+ ERA that Burnett features in 2011, and he’s gotten better over the last couple of months (while Burnett has been worse) still he’s not a pitcher at this point that Tigers fan can feel confident in.

So… Porcello has 3 full seasons under his belt now, lots of observations to see splits. What should we be looking for out of Kid Rick?

The first thing to mention: BIG L-R SPLITS. Porcello is (of course) right-handed, and as you might expect he has been significantly harder for other right-handers to hit over his career to the tune of +.105 OPS. Ivan Nova (as a counter-example) has been the exact opposite.

Second, Porcello has been far better the first time through the batting order than the second or third. Almost all of this is due to a 50 point (non-random) rise in BABIP. While this is far from uncommon, it appears that Porcello has difficulty getting hitters to swing at pitchers’ pitches once they have seen his whole arsenal.

The third thing that sticks out is that Porcello doesn’t seem to do well in pressure situations. His career ERA with 6+ runs of support is under 4, with less it’s approximately 5. The same story can be told with high vs. low leverage situations or bases empty vs. runners on – both of which show a split of about 100 points of OPS.

The Yankees have plenty of left-handed bats, they work their way on base and – as they say – every pitch in the playoffs is high leverage. These things don’t necessarily excite confidence in Porcello. He also has not seemed to get any real advantage from pitching in Comerica Park, unlike (for example) fly-baller Max Scherzer.

Of course, there are at least a few reasons for optimism. September has been Porcello’s second-best month over his relatively short career with an ERA of 3.45 and a WHIP of 1.22 – at the very least he does not appear to get worn down quickly as the season progresses. Lastly, he has been no worse against good teams than he has against bad (as far as ERA, OPS allowed, etc… are concerned) so he clearly is not the kind of pitcher that needs his opponents to be easily fooled or bite on things they really shouldn’t.

It looks like this game will boil down to two things:
1. Can Porcello dial it up? I was very impressed with the way Porcello threw in the closest thing he’s ever seen to a playoff game – 2009’s game 163. The outcome of that could have been different if Porcello had been allowed to go a full seven. Porcello has always had potentially filthy stuff but an instructional league mindset. If he’s throwing big breakers for strikes, watch out.
2. Can A.J. Burnett get major league hitters out? In 11 starts since the start of August Burnett put up a 7.62 ERA, gave up 11 home runs and averaged less than 5 innings per start. Of course, his last start was pretty good – 2 earned in 7 2/3 – and helped put one more nail in Boston’s coffin. On the year as a whole he has gotten knocked around by righties (despite being a righty) and has struggled just to keep his team in games on the road. Porcello, as I mentioned earlier, has pitched much better with run support. A Porcello with a lead is an aggressive Porcello and an aggressive Porcello is both harder to hit and more likely to find that his mistakes can be pitched around.

I find it difficult to make an objective prediction for this game, I care about it a little too much. So here’s my (non-objective) prediction: 7-2 Detroit. A.J. Burnett gives up 3 home runs and is chased in the fifth down 7-1. Porcello coasts to victory, but Al Al gives up a run and a lot of baserunners in another adventurous ninth. The series ends. Yankees fans and the national media are shocked and appalled, demanding major changes in the Bronx this offseason. Yanks brass is tortured for months over whether or not to simply eat the remaining years of Burnett’s contract.