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Entries in Rick Porcello (5)


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.


Porcello Poised for a Breakout?

Porcello has been ace-like during spring training. Will he carry that performance over into the regular season?Should the Tigers trade Rick Porcello?  They'd have to be nuts to do that, according to Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports. Porcello has whiffed 18 batters, walked none and posted a 2.50 ERA in 18 major league innings this spring. Rosenthal thinks he could pitch like an ace in 2013:

Tigers right-hander Rick Porcello, the subject of trade speculation, started the minor-league game because it was his day to pitch and the parent club was off.

Yet it quickly became evident — as it has been evident all spring — that if the Tigers move Porcello, they’re nuts.


What matters is Porcello’s aggressive, self-assured demeanor. What matters is the carry on his four-seam fastball, the snap in his curveball, the indications — one after another — that he is on the verge of a career breakthrough.

Is Rosenthal right to get his bowtie in a twist over Porcello's potential, or will 2013 be another so-so season for the 24-year-old righty? Here are three reasons why Porcello will break out -- and three reasons why he won't.

Why Porcello Will Break Out

  • Porcello's strikeout rate has climbed three years running, from 12% of batters faced back in 2010 to 13.7% this past year. Much of the credit for that increase goes to his fastball. Porcello threw his heater harder last year, and hitters started whiffing at the pitch more often. 

    Porcello's Fastball

    Porcello notched 72 Ks with his fastball in 2012, up from 55 in 2011 and 53 in 2010.

  • As Rosenthal mentioned, Porcello is scrapping his slider in favor of his curveball. That's probably a wise move, considering that every hitter who saw a slider from Porcello last year morphed into Miguel Cabrera. Batters slugged .633 against Porcello's slider in 2012, by far the highest mark among starters. Porcello's curve fared much better, albeit in a limited sample size (.313 opponent slugging percentage).

    Curveballs also tend to be effective against batters on both sides of the plate, unlike sliders (see chart below). That could help Porcello tame lefty batters, who crushed him for a .503 slugging percentage last year (righties slugged 100 points lower).

     Right-handed starting pitchers throwing breaking pitches, 2012

  • Porcello's changeup has become more of a chase pitch over the years, a development that could also help him keep lefties at bay. Batters lunged at 29% of changeups that Porcello threw out of the strike zone in 2010, 32% in 2011 and 39% in 2012 (the MLB average is 35-36%). For comparison's sake, Justin Verlander got hitters to chase his changeup 38% of the time last year.

Why He Won't

  • As a low-strikeout, worm-burning pitcher, Porcello couldn't ask for a worse home than Detroit. It's great to have Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera providing run support. But let's be honest -- Prince and Miggy aren't getting any younger, swifter or slimmer. They'll have statues outside Comerica Park one day, but they're already statues in the field. Tigers pitchers had a collective .260 Batting Average on Balls in Play on ground balls last year, fourth-worst among MLB clubs and 15 points above the big league average. Porcello had a .250 BABIP on grounders.

    The Tigers ranked near the bottom in converting ground balls into outs in 2010 and 2011, too, which is a major reason why Porcello's ERA has been higher than his Fielding Independent ERA (FIP) in each of the past three seasons. Porcello's three-year ERA is 4.75, and his FIP is 4.09. AL starters have an ERA of 4.28 over the same time frame. He's a slightly above-average pitcher stuck behind lousy defenders, which makes him look below-average. Will that change in 2013?

  • Porcello is missing more lumber, but so is every other pitcher. Overall, AL starting pitchers struck out 17.1% of batters faced in 2010. Last year, they punched out 18.2%. Porcello's strikeout rate was about 30% below the league average in 2010 (see table below). Last year? About 25% below average. When you consider the increase in Ks across the game, Porcello is more treading water than making marked progress.

    Porcello's K rate compared to the AL average for starters

  • Rosenthal mentions that Porcello is one of just five pitchers to tally a double-digit win total in at least four consecutive seasons before turning 24, putting him in the same company as Hall of Famers Bert Blyleven, Chief Bender and Dennis Eckersley. Is Porcello really in the same class as those pitchers, though? Consider Porcello's career stats through age 23, compared to that trio of Hall of Famers. I used Baseball-Reference's ERA+ stat to make an apples-to-apples comparison. ERA+ adjusts a pitcher's ERA for league and park factors, putting it in on a scale where 100 is average, below 100 means the pitcher is worse than average, and above 100 means he's better.

    Porcello, Blyleven, Chief and Eck through age 23

    Source: Baseball-Reference  

    Bender was about average for his era, while Blyleven and Eckersley were top-shelf starters during their early twenties. Porcello gets dinged here a bit for the aforementioned lousy defense behind him, but he's still not in the same class. Bender, Blyleven and Eckersley also routinely ranked in the top 10 in strikeouts during the eras in which they played. Porcello hasn't shown the ability to dominate hitters like that.


To Thrive, Porcello Needs Out of Detroit

Detroit Tigers starter Rick Porcello has improved his strikeout-to-walk ratio each season in the majors while also inducing bushels of ground balls. Porcello turns 24 later this month, and he won't hit free agency until after the 2015 season. The right-hander's gradual improvement, youth and years of remaining team control make him potentially valuable commodity. So why is Detroit shopping him? Simply put, Porcello and the Tigers are better off apart. Porcello needs quality infield defense to reach his potential, and the Tigers' plus-sized plodders don't provide it.

Tossing his tailing fastball more frequently than every American League starter not named Bartolo Colon or Henderson Alvarez, Porcello posted a 54% ground ball rate during the 2012 season. That easily topped the 46% major league average, and ranked eighth among all qualified starting pitchers. All of those grounders helped Porcello keep the ball in the park (he surrendered 0.8 home runs per nine innings pitched), but they didn't turn into outs as often as they should have. With Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder manning he corner infield spots, Porcello's batting average on balls in play (BABIP) on ground balls was well above the MLB average for qualified starters:

Highest BABIP on ground balls among SP, 2012

Max Scherzer .339
Phil Hughes .309
Matt Moore .294
Joe Saunders .290
Ricky Nolasco .286
Luis Mendoza .286
Bud Norris .285
Bruce Chen .277
Anibal Sanchez .274
Ivan Nova .274
Barry Zito .270
Tommy Milone .269
Josh Beckett .267
Ryan Vogelsong .266
Ubaldo Jimenez .265
Tommy Hanson .264
Homer Bailey .263
Josh Johnson .261
Cliff Lee .260
Ross Detwiler .257
Felix Hernandez .256
Derek Holland .256
Rick Porcello .250
Lance Lynn .249
Ricky Romero .248
MLB Avg.for Qualified SP .234


As a pitcher who misses few bats (his 5.5 K/9 last year was a career high), Porcello puts the ball in play more often than the rest of the guys on this list. That amplifies the effect that Detroit's less-than-rangy infield has on Porcello -- more grounders, more balls that squeak past Prince and Miggy for singles

Porcello has been linked to the Angels, Pirates and Padres, among other clubs. All three would be a better fit for his groundball-centric approach, as L.A. (.224 BABIP on ground balls), Pittsburgh (.234) and San Diego (.245) turned more ground balls into outs than Detroit (.260). With better infield defense, Porcello should be able to close the gap between his mediocre ERA (4.59 last season) and his more promising Fielding Independent ERA (3.91).

The Tigers' philosophy with Fielder and Cabrera at the corners is to score runs, range be damned. To mitigate the effects of that lack of range, Detroit has assembled a high-strikeout starting rotation. Porcello's pitch-to-contact, ground ball-heavy style just doesn't fit. A trade makes sense for both sides, as Porcello has more value to a club with airtight infield D than he does to the Tigers.