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Can Rick Porcello Take A Step Forward?

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Back in 2007, the Tigers made Rick Porcello a very rich young man. Falling quickly in the draft, not because of talent, but because of bonus demands, the Tigers didn’t shock a lot of people when they took out the check book and signed Porcello. Now, fairly or not, Porcello at the time was earning Josh Beckett comparisons, so expectations for Porcello have been high from the beginning. Clearly after watching Porcello the past couple years, he doesn’t pitch much like Josh Beckett.

Still, that doesn’t mean he is bad. After all, Porcello has been gracing a big league mound since the age of 20 and has won 38 big league games already. But it still seems that Tigers fans are looking for something more from him, and have been for the past two seasons.

Inevitably, when discussing the Tigers rotation for 2012, most people expect some sort of regression from ace Justin Verlander. It’s only natural after his superhuman effort he gave the Tigers last year. Regression for him is still a fantastic pitcher. What is also inevitable is Tigers fans also expect some improvement from Porcello, as if his getting older is the one element that will automatically make his performance better.

Coming into 2012, the now veteran Porcello is still only 23 years old. Did I just call him veteran? Yes, I think I did. He is veteran, not because of his birth certificate, but because of the amount of innings he now has under his belt. At the ripe age of 23, Porcello already has 515 major league innings under his belt. He is no longer a baby in baseball terms, so I think it’s time that we stop babying our expectations for him.

Part of the issue with Porcello might have been unrealistic expectations to begin with. After all, is it really fair to have a Josh Beckett comparison slapped on you when you are coming out of high school? We were told that Porcello threw in the mid 90’s coming out of high school. Last season, Porcello averaged 90.4 mph on his four seam fastball, and below 90 on his 2 seam. That isn’t Josh Beckett-like at the age of 22 at all. In fact, velocity wise, it is more Greg Madduxthan Josh Beckett.

Did I just throw out a Greg Maddux comparison? Well, kinda. Stuff wise they are similar. I actually did a comparison of Porcello vs. Maddux at the same age last season at my old website. I was just trying to stem the tide of Porcello naysayers that seemed to be popping up. I would link it, but now I am embarrassed to say that I authored it since Greg Maddux is a Hall of Famer and Porcello is still struggling to find some semblance of consistency. Even though I had good intentions, and Porcello compared favorably at the time, Maddux put things into high gear at age 22, and left the kind of season Porcello had last year behind. Needless to say, it makes me a little more apprehensive to make comps for Porcello going forward.

But this isn’t about comparisons, this is about Rick Porcello and his ability to get better.

So far, Porcello’s best year numbers wise was his rookie season. Well, at least his ERA, ERA+, and his WHIP. If you believe solely in FIP, then last season was his best when he posted a career low FIP of 4.06. There are so many things that go into advanced metrics like FIP, that we could have a discussion on just that, but let’s just say that HR rate, K rate, and things such as those play a role in it. With Porcello’s ERA coming in at 4.75 last year, the inference is that he is a little bit unlucky given his peripherals. Since his rookie season of 2009, when his FIP was 4.77, it has dropped two consecutive years, despite the increase in his ERA.

One would expect some adjustment to Porcello after his rookie campaign. After all, it was the first time batters around the league were seeing the young prodigy. The effect was that Porcello was more hittable in his sophomore season, and went through somewhat of a sophomore slump, or just a regression to where he should of been given his luck his rookie season. Despite his decrease in FIP from year one to year two, the ERA went up a full run, his good fortune from the previous year catching up with him. In fact, his second year was a pretty good representation of where he was at, meaning it was then time for him to adjust in year three.

You can see that Porcello is making some adjustments. How do I know that? By looking at his pitch selections. From his rookie season to now, you can see the progression into the type of pitcher Porcello has become. As a rookie Porcello threw roughly 71% fastballs, and last year that number was cut down to around 66%.  The big change has come from the number of 2 seamers he now throws. Porcello throws a 2 seamer (sinker) around 42% of the time now, and that is double what he was throwing as a rookie. His four seamer is only being thrown about 24% of the time now, down from his rookie season of about 50%.

What is interesting about his fastball percentages is that Porcello decreased the number of 2 seamers he threw from his sophomore season to his junior year, and increased his four seamer. Maybe an acknowledgement that hitters were sitting on the sinker too much? I find that interesting because Porcello’s modest K rate went up a little bit, and given his stuff, he is going to have to mix things more to rack up K signs in left field.

Another dramatic change in his style is the massive increase in sliders. It’s gone from a little used pitch in his rookie season at 5% of the time, to being 20% of his repertoire now. Typically, organizations don’t like their young guys throwing tons of sliders, unless your Jeremy Bonderman and still trying to learn how to throw a change. The slider could be helping his K rate out as well.

His change has remained relatively static, sitting between 11% and 14% of his repertoire throughout his career. And now, he hardly ever throws his curve ball. Just 2% of the time in 2011.

So, does this mean that Porcello can take a step forward in 2012? Well, it’s certainly not a definitive, but the trends would point to yes. Given that he has suffered a little bit of bad luck ERA wise the last couple of years, and is showing an ability to mix his pitches better, I could see Porcello sitting in the low 4.00 area with his ERA. Until he starts getting his K rate up, to me, he is always going to be a little bit “unlucky”. At least the K rate is starting to trend in a positive direction though. His GB% is good, and while the Tigers infield may hurt him, generating ground balls is generally considered a good thing.

Porcello at this point isn’t going to blow anybody away. I think we have to face that. Still, it’s a little strange to see a young mans average velocity drop one whole MPH while he is still 23. Shouldn’t he be gaining velocity at that age? Bottom line, velocity isn’t everything, and if you don’t have it, you have to be able to command, have movement, and change eye levels. Porcello, I don’t think will ever reach the heights of a Greg Maddux. He just doesn’t have the command. Not many do. Maddux could throw a baseball in a beer glass from across the room.

Porcello can be a better pitcher than he is right now. The question is will he? He better hope so, because the Tigers are going to have to make some interesting decisions on their starting rotations in the next couple years. Like, who do they want to keep, and who gets the big payday?

If I was Rick Porcello, I would pay attention to what Doug Fister is doing. And guess what? It isn’t throwing all two seam fastballs.