Is Rick Porcello a Reliever?


Rick Porcello is going through a rough patch in something of a rough season – and definitely has not made the strides that we were all hoping he would make in his 4th big league season. The Tigers have lost his last 7 starts (he is personally 0-6 in those games). Some were quality starts, but his overall numbers during that span mirror the mediocrity he has given the Tigers over the whole season: a 4.42 ERA and an .830 OPS allowed. That is fueled by a .343 BABIP, but that’s actually lower than Porcello’s .348 BABIP over his first 22 starts.

Aug 30, 2012; Kansas City, MO, USA; Detroit Tigers starting pitcher Rick Porcello (48) walks off the field after being relieved in the sixth inning against the Kansas City Royals at Kauffman Stadium. Mandatory Credit: John Rieger-US PRESSWIRE

His fastball velocity has climbed by almost 2 mph this season – which should be great. His strikeout rate has ticked up a hair to 5.43 per 9 innings. One problem may be that his other offerings have also increased significantly in velocity and this may mean less bite and less effectiveness. Michael Barr has a good article on FanGraphs that lays the blame for Porcello’s .346 BABIP and poor overall performance with a terrible slider with half the lateral movement that it had in 2011. Could very well be, but I doubt that Barr’s prescription for September success (stop throwing the thing until he can fix it in the offseason) is going to do much to improve outcomes for Porcello. I do buy the slider argument – in past years Porcello has struggled (though not to quite this extreme) with BABIP against lefties but not righties and it is those righties that see the most sliders. This year his BABIP against righties is an alarming .339 compared to .273 last year, while his BABIP against lefties has only risen 5 points from .350 to .355.

“Fixing” his slider would get Porcello back to where he was in 2011 vis a vis right-handed batters – maybe even a little better, since he has done a better job of striking those righties out and limiting extra bases. But that still leaves massive unresolved problems in Porcello’s game (assuming that he can actually do that): the inability to get lefties out and the fact that he seems to get “figured out” later in games.

Some of you may remember the discussion that used to go on regarding Jeremy Bonderman (after a bad start or a series of bad starts) – Bonderman always had struggles against left-handed batters, since he relied so heavily on that slider/fastball combo. The suggestion for Bondo was that he might make a great back-end reliever, since he had a good K/BB ratio and was really hard on righties. The problem with that suggestion was that Bondo seemed to have a lot of trouble getting into the groove in the first so Bondo was actually better on pitches 26-100 than he was on the first 25.

It’s kind of normal for pitchers to struggle late in the game with batters that have seen their stuff. What is abnormal is for pitchers to be able to pace themselves early on (and still get outs) and get better in later innings: like Justin Verlander [.607 OPS allowed the first time through the lineup, .538 OPS allowed the third time in 2012] Fister also does better the third time through than the first or second. Scherzer has struggled the third time through, but he’s also better on pitches 26-50, 51-75, 76-100 and 100+ (using group averages) than over his first 25 pitches. If a guy can’t do what Verlander does we want that guy to at least have slightly diminished effectiveness the second and third times through the order (like Max Scherzer over his whole career). The numbers Porcello has put up have been pretty ghastly: a .687 OPS the first time through the order (better than Fister or Scherzer), a .792 OPS allowed the second time and a .939 the third. Those splits roughly mirror what he has done over his career as well.

SO… what we have in Porcello is a guy who (despite the high slider-induced BABIP vs. R this season) only really excels at getting righties out – with a .729 OPS allowed vs. R as opposed to an .872 OPS allowed vs. L in 2012 (and a career split almost as big). And we have a guy who does great things the first time through the order, before things start to fall apart. Doesn’t that sound like a relief pitcher to you? Let’s just put it this way: his L-R splits in 2012 are slightly larger than Octavio Dotel’s career splits and back when Dotel used to start he also struggled after the first time through the order but wasn’t as good as Porcello the first time through the order or as bad as Porcello the third time through.

Valverde will be through after this year – maybe Porcello would even be a decent in-house replacement?