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Entries in Detroit Tigers (64)

Tuesday
Feb042014

Why Rick Porcello Will (Finally!) Break Out in 2014

Now a half-decade into his big league career, Rick Porcello has yet to become the stud pitcher the Tigers envisioned when the club made him the most handsomely-paid high-schooler in draft history. Porcello has been good for about 170 innings pitched per season, avoiding the injury pitfalls that claim many young arms, but those innings have been pedestrian. His career ERA, adjusted for park and league run scoring levels, is five percent below average. Not terrible, but not what you're hoping for from a guy who received more guaranteed cash than than any 2007 draftee not named David Price.

But don't despair, Tigers fans -- Porcello looks primed for a breakout in 2014. The 25-year-old will at long last get some defensive support from his infielders, and he now has a reliable breaking pitch that's missing bats and helping his fastball play up.

Goodbye Prince, Hello Jose Iglesias

As a ground ball-centric, pitch-to-contact starter, Porcello couldn't have been a worse fit for Tigers teams of recent vintage. Detroit basically punted infield defense over the past few years, tolerating the fall-down range of Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder at the corners in order to churn out as many runs as possible. Porcello suffered: He had a .263 batting average on balls in play on grounders last season, which was 23 points higher than the major league average.

In 2014, though, Porcello's infield D might actually do him some favors. The Fielder-Ian Kinsler swap transformed Detroit's infield, bringing in a superb second baseman, shifting Miggy Cabrera to the cold corner and jettisoning Fielder's iron glove. Kinsler was 11 runs better than an average player at the keystone in 2013, according to John Dewan's Defensive Runs Saved metric. Cabrera was terrible at third (-18 DRS), so replacement Nick Castellanos merely needs to show more range than a mastodon stuck in the La Brea Tar Pits to be an upgrade. At first, Cabrera should be less of a liability than Fielder (-13 DRS).

Porcello will also benefit from a full season of Jose Iglesias' breath-taking D at shortstop. The former Red Sock rated as an average defender according to DRS last year, but he was +7 in limited time in 2012 and has a sterling reputation. Plus, dude can do this.

Porcello's New Weapon

While Porcello should get far more support when he puts the ball in play, he's already helping himself by removing defense from the equation entirely. Porcello's strikeout rate spiked from 13.7 percent of batters faced in 2012 to 19.3 percent in 2013, which actually bested the MLB average for starters (18.9 percent). What changed? The righty threw fewer fastballs and made his curveball a vital part of his arsenal, equipping him with a quality breaking pitch for the first time.

Porcello used his fastball about 67 percent of the time in 2012, the third-highest clip in the AL behind Henderson Alvarez and Joe Saunders. He had to lean heavily on his heat, because his breaking ball of choice -- a short mid-80s slider -- pretty muched turned every hitter he faced into Miggy (opponents slugged .633 against the pitch).

In 2013, though? Porcello cut back on the fastballs (61.7 percent) and nearly shelved his slider in favor of a high-70s curveball (thrown 16.6 percent of the time). Porcello's hook got swings and misses 29.6 percent of the time, slightly above the 29.2 percent MLB average. While his slider got slaughtered, Porcello held opponents to a .303 slugging percentage with his curve. Porcello's curve might make his fastball more effective, too considering that he now has a less predictable pitch mix. He got a whiff with his fastball 15.9 percent of the time in 2013, up from 13.3 percent in 2012.

Still in his mid-twenties, Porcello has treaded water to this point in his career by displaying sharp command and preventing homers. Now that he's backed by quality defenders and can fan hitters with his curve, this former bonus baby is about to bust out.

Tuesday
Dec032013

Fister Takes Impeccable Command to D.C. 

Judging from the trade package the Tigers received from the Nationals in exchange for Doug Fister, you might think he's just some back-of-the-rotation schlub. Instead, it appears that Washington GM Mike Rizzo just landed one of the game's best starters, still two years away from free agency, for a good-not-great pitching prospect (Robbie Ray), a potential lefty specialist (Ian Krol), and a versatile bench bat (Steve Lombardozzi).

Fister doesn't look like an ace, lobbing 89 MPH fastballs and a cornucopia of breaking and offspeed stuff toward home plate. But don't mistake a lack of velocity for a lack of talent. Over the past three seasons, Fister ranks eighth among all starting pitchers in Baseball Reference Wins Above Replacement (12.6), and his park-and-league-adjusted ERA (24 percent above average) places tenth. Fister bested now former teammate and newly crowned AL Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer in both categories.

The 29-year-old righty produces elite results with pedestrian stuff thanks to a nearly unparalleled ability to throw strikes. Fister has issued a mere 1.8 walks per nine innings pitched since 2011, tying him with new rotation mate Jordan Zimmermann for seventh among starters tossing at least 500 frames over that time frame. He doesn't just flood the strike zone, though -- he avoids the fat part of the plate like few others. Take a look at Fister's pitch location over the past three seasons:

Fister's pitch location, 2011-2013

 

From 2011-13, MLB starters threw an average of 23.6 percent of their pitches to the horizontal middle of the strike zone. Fister, by contrast, threw just 20.8 percent of his pitches down the middle. Among AL starters throwing at least 6,000 pitches since 2011, only Mark Buehrle (20.3 percent) and Jon Lester (20.7) offered hitters fewer cookies.

Why does that matter? Pitches thrown over the middle of the plate get hammered, with hitters slugging a collective .484 against those offerings from 2011-13. Pitchers fare far better when they bust hitters inside (.412 slugging percentage) or paint the outside corner (.330).

The Mariners might be absolved for not fully appreciating Fister's then-burgeoning talents, shipping him to Detroit for a gaggle of so-so-prospects during a 2011 season in which the club lost 95 games. But the Tigers, still equipped to make a World Series run with Justin Verlander, Scherzer, Anibal Sanchez and an in-his-prime Miguel Cabrera, get no such benefit of the doubt. While Drew Smyly appears ready for a rotation spot, Detroit surrendered one of the game's top arms, making far less than he would garner on the open market, for three none-elite youngsters. Fister might be a soft tosser, but his superb command makes him every bit as valuable as more heralded fire ballers.

Tuesday
Nov262013

To Justify Prospect Hype, Profar Must Solve Breaking Stuff 

The Ian Kinsler-Prince Fielder mega deal clears the way for Jurickson Profar to take over the keystone spot in Texas. The switch-hitter from Curacao, still a few months shy of his 21st birthday, ranked as the top prospect in the game according to both Baseball America and MLB.com prior to the 2013 season, showcasing plate discipline (a career .367 on-base percentage in the minors) and power (.449 slugging percentage) beyond his years at a premium position on the diamond.

Profar's tools and polish didn't immediately translate to the majors, however. The trendy preseason pick for American League Rookie of the Year posted a park-and-league-adjusted OPS that was 24 percent below average, ranking 20th out of 24 newcomers logging at least 300 plate appearances. Profar's struggles against curveballs and sliders are a major reason why he was outhit by fellow rookie middle infielders like Brad Miller, Jose Iglesias, Anthony Rendon, Nick Franklin and Didi Gregoroius. To start doing damage versus breaking stuff, the uber-patient Profar will first have to take the bat off his shoulder.

Profar did an excellent job of taking curves and sliders thrown outside of the strike zone, chasing those pitches less than half as often (14.3 percent) as the major league average (30.8 percent). Unfortunately, his "just looking, thanks" approach extended to breaking balls thrown over the heart of the plate.

Profar's swing rate by pitch location vs. curveballs and sliders, 2013

He swung at a mere 54.3 percent of curves and sliders thrown within the strike zone, well below the 61.6 percent major league average. Profar was particularly gun-shy when a pitcher missed his target: He swung at 47.4 percent of breaking stuff thrown to the middle of the plate. Typically, pitchers pay the price when they throw belt-high curveballs and sliders (hitters slugged a collective .459 last year). Against Profar, however, those mistakes still produced strikes.

By taking juicy curves and sliders so often, Profar rarely made loud contact when he did decide to swing. He slugged just .256 versus breaking pitches, nearly 80 points below the MLB average, and hit a grounder 68.2 percent of the time he put the ball in play.

Despite Profar's rough introduction to the big leagues, Rangers fans shouldn't despair. Other young middle infielders eventually became stars after flailing at the plate as rookies, including Hall of Famer Robin Yount (79 OPS+ as a teenager in 1974), Gary Sheffield (82 OPS+ at age 20 in 1989) and Alan Trammell (89 OPS+ as a 20-year-old in 1978). And, like Trammell, Profar has the defensive chops to play an up-the-middle position throughout his career (he'd be a standout at shortstop if not for the presence of Elvis Andrus).

Many rookies must learn to tone down their plate approach, limiting overzealous swings at junk pitches thrown in the dirt. But in Profar's case, he needs to be more aggressive. When pitchers hang a breaking ball over the middle of the dish, he has to make them pay.