Detroit Tigers: Two enhanced rotation pieces to add for Christmas

PHILADELPHIA, PA - AUGUST 16: Rick Porcello #22 of the New York Mets in action against the Philadelphia Phillies during an MLB baseball game at Citizens Bank Park on August 16, 2020 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images)
PHILADELPHIA, PA - AUGUST 16: Rick Porcello #22 of the New York Mets in action against the Philadelphia Phillies during an MLB baseball game at Citizens Bank Park on August 16, 2020 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images) /

AJ Hinch spoke about adding enhanced pieces to the Detroit Tigers rotation. Here are two ideas including a familiar face in time for Christmas.

Detroit’s 2020 Ebenezer Scrooge, aka Chris Ilitch, has had his trusty minions, Al Avila, and the mainstream local media, dutifully pushing the narrative that patience is required. If teams were ranked on the performance of their PR department, the Detroit Tigers would be World Series contenders.

Nearly every major local outlet had an article laying out the 2021 Detroit Tigers season’s agenda trying to squash the outrage that is building amongst the loyal and vocal fan base on social media. Never mind that many Tigers fans have given the organization plenty of leeway since the tearing down of the club that started in July 2017, lower your expectations and give them more time is what we are being sold.

Motor City Bengals co-expert Rogelio Castillo did just that with a low cost first look at an everyday line-up. I am taking a cue from all of the chatter and realizing that the thought of Tomoyuki Sugano was like asking for a Powerball victory and have turned to search long and hard for other upgrades that could be less expensive. I’ve previously written about one of these players and still think Big Al should inquire about Mike Leake. So with visions of Scrooge counting pepperoni slices into prepackaged portions, let’s examine what I believe should be an even less costly acquisition to desperately eat some of the 1450 innings or so that you need to get through a full season if we are blessed with 162 games: Rick Porcello.

Entering his age 32 season, Detroit Tigers fans are well acquainted with Rick Porcello. The former first-round draft pick in 2007 by Dave Dombrowski made his debut for Jim Leyland’s squad in 2009 at age 20 and compiled 76 wins over what was basically league average performance during his tenure with the Tigers. His time in Detroit ended with a trade to the Red Sox following the 2014 season.

That deal during the Holiday Season yielded shiny gifts in the form of Yoenis Cespedes, Alex Wilson, and the often forgotten Gabe Speier, who pitched 1 season in Grand Rapids before being flipped in the deal for Cameron Maybin along with Ian Kroll (welcome back, by the way) The trade did yield dividends for the Tigers, even as Porcello went on to an outstanding 2016 season that culminated in a Cy Young award trophy for placement on his mantle. That one season has so far been an outlier in an overall solid but not spectacular career.

Falling on hard times in 2019 with Boston, he was allowed to leave via free agency and signed a 1-year deal for 10 million with the New York Mets. The results on the surface were not pretty, a 1-7 record with a 5.64 ERA. A little further examination illustrates signs that he could potentially have a little more in the tank to offer the Tigers on what is looking like another throwaway season during this now lengthy rebuilding era of Detroit baseball.

Let’s look at a few stats courtesy of MLB Statcast to compare the last two seasons and his 2016 CY Young Season:

Barrel % 2016- 7.0, 2019- 9.4 2020- 8.4

Exit Velocity- 2016 88.4, 2019- 88.4, 2020- 87.2

Hard Hit %- 2016- 35.1, 2019- 37.6 2020- 36.1

Hits/9- 2016- 7.8, 2019- 10.2, 2020- 11.3

FIP- 2016- 3.40, 2019- 4.76, 2020- 3.33

The Fielding Independent Pitching tells us that perhaps Rick was a bit unlucky in 2020 but you would also think, with the Statcast Measurements not being tremendously different from his 2016 campaign, the barrel percentage and hard-hit percentage are 1 point higher but his exit velocity is lower, that the hits per 9 would not have increased by a little over 1 per inning, so what gives? Now we will examine 3 of his pitches over the last 5 seasons:

4 Seam Fastball Batting Average/ % thrown

2016- .199/ 22.2%
2017- .278/ 33.4%
2018- .195/ 20.1%
2019- .270/ 31.4%
2020- .211/ 10.5%

Slider Batting Average/ % thrown

2016- .192/ 12.8%
2017- .216/ 16.9%
2018- .213/ 24.4%
2019- .230/ 18.3%
2020- .292/ 29.2%

Sinker Batting Average/ % thrown
2016: .283/ 37.9%
2017: .323/ 25.9%
2018: .283/ 29.7%
2019: .294/ 25.6%
2020: .324/ 42.6%

There are some interesting takeaways from the pitch selection data. Porcello has had very good success with his 4 seam fastball at 20% or less usage, but when he tried to push it into the 30% range it was much less effective. He perhaps decreased its usage too far in taking it from 31.4% in 2019 to 10.5% in 2020. His slider has been fairly consistent throughout his career, but last year was a struggle. Strangely enough, he increased its usage in 2020 to 29.2%, up from 18.3% in the 2019 campaign. His sinker has always been his most thrown pitch but reached a high in usage at 42.6% with the batting average jumping 30 points over 2019.

What does all this tell me? I believe that upping the 4 seamer usage to the 20 percent mark while decreasing the sinker and slider by a few percentage points each could yield a little better result. Perhaps the tutelage of Chris Fetter can help Rick find his slider and make 2020 an outlier with that pitch and bring it back to performing closer to its rather remarkable 2016-2019 consistency.

Porcello also mixes in a curveball and a changeup with much less frequency and not a ton of success but maybe a tweak to at least be able to use them as show-me pitches with different speeds and eye levels from his main stable of pitches could also help, however, I do believe the four-seamer and slider are the key for the former Tiger to take a step forward and reestablish some value for the rest of his career.

Combining being a bit unlucky in 2020 with the rediscovery of his past slider results along with a little different pitch mix, the opportunity for a 2021 rebound doesn’t seem impossible, even if it is far from a certainty.

Although he isn’t my first or second choice, and I would rather go with Mike Leake with an estimated marketplace value of 9.9 million, a reuniting with Rick Porcello who has a 6.1 million dollar market value and some potential for performance improvement that could get the job done, could be a Christmas gift offered to the growling fanbase.

More importantly for the Tigers organization, he comes at a lower cost even. With our Ebenezer Scrooge not yet having found his salvation and holding onto Christmas past, looking for every dollar savings potential first and meeting the needs of the ball club second is prudent if the not fun or exciting approach to take when looking from the outside trying to improve the ball club.

Full disclosure, I am still in the shrinking minority that does believe that Chris Ilitch will see the light and change his ways just like the Classic Dickens story ends. I am taking him at his word, but his timetable and our timetable as fans clearly do not aline and it will not be this year. Until then we must look for help from the relative bargain bin and pray that 2022 brings about a spending transformation and he atones for his sins, bringing joy to Tigers fans everywhere.