Detroit Tigers Should Stay The Course With Rick Porcello


Apr 20, 2013; Anaheim, CA, USA; Detroit Tigers pitcher Rick Porcello (21) pitches against the Los Angeles Angels during the first inning at the Angel Stadium of Anaheim. Mandatory Credit: Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

Saturday’s Detroit Tigers game in Los Angeles was a perfect, if a bit hyperbolic, example of the dichotomy that is Rick Porcello’s pitching ability. He was able to induce a plethora of ground ball – most of which were mildly hit – but he wasn’t able to punch anyone out with strike three and so he hung at the mercy of BABIP. Nothing we saw that day accurately depicted his pitching skill level – he can get some strike threes and many more of his balls in play will find fielders’ gloves – but he does leave himself susceptible to these wildly unlucky games by leaving so much of his results to chance.

This leaves the team with an interesting decision: what do they do going forward?

In his four full seasons he’s proven two things. (1) That he’s not a (at least yet) a great starting pitcher, and (2) that he’s not a horribly bad starting pitcher. It seems like every year (and every month inside of every year) we wonder and hope that he’s just about to take the proverbial “next step”, but every year he has made only modest increases in his peripherals and he’s never been able to shake the high BABIP woes.

One response the team could take would be to immediately replace Porcello in the rotation with Drew Smyly. Kurt Mensching argued in favor of this move yesterday evening at Bless You Boys. It wouldn’t be a bad move. Smyly has been throwing well out of the bullpen this year, and he showed the ability to be a good starter last season, but I’m not convinced this is the best move for the Detroit Tigers.

First off, let’s get some rough numbers down on paper. Career Rick Porcello has an ERA of 4.67. Career Drew Smyly has an ERA of 3.70. That’s a stark difference, but it “only” represents less than one run per start. If those ERA numbers were predictive of what each player would do as a starter going forward this year, we would expect it to take 16 starts (half a season, figuring six innings per start) before we see a full game difference in the standings (based on a win being 10 runs). If we used the “rest of season” projections as provided by Steamer (available on FanGraphs player pages) – 4.18 ERA for Porcello, 3.69 ERA for Smyly – it would take 30 games before the difference manifested itself as a one game difference in the Win-Loss column.

It sure feels like Smyly would give the team a better chance to win every fifth day – and that probably is the case – but it feels like he gives the team significantly better chance to win, but that’s really not the case.

So if I agree that Smyly probably would give them a better chance to win, why wouldn’t I want the team to make the switch? It’s not that I would hate a change, as I said, it probably wouldn’t be a bad move, but there are other factors involved that could affect the team’s final W/L record.

The first factor would be Porcello’s mental state. A demotion could cause a player to buckle down, learn something new, develop a new mentality, or something else that causes him to get better. That could happen. Or it could wreck his confidence, make him afraid to make further mistakes, or otherwise distract him from getting the job done. We could say “who cares, he’s out of the rotation” to this, but the Tigers would still need him at some point. Either he’s in the bullpen – where many have suggested he’d make a very good reliever – or back in the rotation as an injury replacement or spot starter. They wouldn’t want him to be mentally checked out.

And then there’s the situation of his contract. He’s being paid $5.1 million this season and has two years of arbitration eligibility remaining. His salary wouldn’t rise if he stayed in the bullpen, but $15 million would be too much to pay for three years of relief work from Rick Porcello.

A trade might be an appropriate course of action if they were to demote him from the rotation, but players with 11.08 ERAs who have been given up on by their teams don’t generally return compelling trade packages. It might be better – even if they ultimately decide they’re going to trade him in-season – to see if he can string together a few more acceptable appearances to display to the league that he’s not broken.

Again, I’m not going to take a hard line on my position to maintain the status quo – I’m as tired of waiting for something new to happen as anyone – but I don’t think there’s much harm in waiting out the situation for a while longer. They just recently committed to not trading him and keeping him in the rotation, flip-flopping that position so suddenly would cause me to be concerned for the team’s ability to execute a long-term vision.

My stance all along has been for the team to keep Porcello in the rotation until (at least) the All-Star Break. I don’t think they should do anything differently now that he’s struggled in a small sample out of the gate.