Over the first two weeks of the 2012 season, fans of the Detroit Tigers were treated to the version of Rick Porcello we’ve only seen in transient spells—the one we’ve waited for since his draft in 2007 and subsequent touting as the next Roy Halladay. He was effective and efficient in shutting down first the Tampa Bay Rays, then the Chicago White Sox, compiling a 1.84 ERA in 14.2 innings of work.
Then the Texas Rangers—those explosive, well-rounded pests—happened. Before recording a single out on Saturday afternoon, Porcello found himself down 4-0 with the bases loaded. By the time the massacre of Porcello finished—with nobody retired in the second inning—the Rangers had tagged him with nine runs, eight of which were scored as ‘earned.’
So what went wrong? The first thing I notice as I look at the BrooksBaseball.net PitchFX Tool is that he abandoned his four-seam fastball almost completely; departing from the pattern seen in his first two starts, when he selected it 11.96% of the time and 32.32% respectively, he used it 3.92% of the time—or twice in 51 pitches. Those four-seam fastballs he didn’t throw were, predictably, replaced by those of the two-seam variety; the selection rate for Porcello’s bread and butter offering went from 54.35% to 35.35% then all the way up to 64.71% today.
There’s not enough evidence to support the notion I offered as a suggestion earlier on Twitter that Porcello threw too often in the strike zone. 81.82% of his 33 sinkers (or two-seam fastballs) were strikes, compared to 82% and 71.43% respectively in his first two outings. It’s the same story for his 12 sliders, which were in the zone 58.33% of the time, again between the strike rates for that pitch in his first two starts. (Sinkers and sliders accounted for all but six of his pitches Saturday.)
Porcello’s changeup, which he went to only four times, was his only positive pitch Saturday according to linear weights, with a score of -0.0313 (negative scores indicate more effective pitches). His worst pitch by that measure was his slider, which generated a purely awful 2.9816 rating. He could have managed if the slider had been his only problem. In fact, he did so when the pitch achieved a 1.7794 rating in Chicago.
The poor slider Porcello possessed is interesting. Speed-wise, it changed virtually none. Its movement did take an odd turn, though; it was normal vertically, but by horizontal movement, the pitch has progressed game to game from 0.44 to 0.15 to -0.44. To my knowledge, that means the pitch, in Porcello’s first start, darted outside, away from right-handed batters, and in his recent start it instead cut inside, towards them.
His sinker, though it generated bad results (1.9040 linear weights compared to -1.6809 and -2.0737 in starts one and two), did not depart from the norm and though I can’t seem to find a graph that supports this, watching the game I was okay with how he located it. (Of the 12 balls the Rangers put in play off Porcello, nine were ground balls—if not for one deflected by the pitcher and one misplayed that could easily have resulted in a double play, the first frame could have ended closer to 2-0 than 8-0.) Porcello threw few blatant mistake pitches, but Texas made the most of them.
My conclusion: Porcello probably found gripping his slider problematic in the Michigan cold and, even more dooming, encountered an inconceivably hot Texas offense. There to compound his struggles was the uncharacteristically poor defensive play of Brandon Inge. Above all though—and you may have heard Mario Impemba and Rod Allen tell you this already—he renounced his four-seam fastball.
The problems that were there for Porcello (again, fewer than the box score suggests) should be easily remedied assuming his confidence is there in his next game. That will likely come Thursday afternoon against the Seattle Mariners, who will be lacking aplomb themselves not a week removed from playing the role of Phil Humber’s perfect game victim.