Rick Porcello Deserves Another Look

Anyone remember who the unexpected darling of spring training was this year? Okay, fine, it was Yasiel Puig. But if we stick to either Florida or the mound, then the man collecting the most acclaim in March was Detroit pitcher Rick Porcello, who struck out 21 in 24 innings without allowing a single walk. Now, you know as well as I do that spring training numbers don’t really matter, yet it’s hard to ignore a 21/0 K/BB.


That kind of buzz made Porcello something of an early darling among fantasy players, especially as he entered his age-24 season with a solid (if small) four year trend of declining home run rates and increasing K/9 rates behind him. Porcello had lowered his FIP and his xFIP each year of his career, and so far in 2013 he’s continued that trend (see table at right). By all indications, Porcello has continued improving as a pitcher, and he’s right ahead of James Shields, Gio Gonzalez, and Cole Hamels on the FIP charts.

Yet here we are in the first week of August, and Porcello has only a 4.49 ERA. He’s still owned in fewer than 20% of ESPN and Yahoo! leagues. What gives?

Let’s tackle the ERA-FIP differential first, since the 0.97 gap there is the fourth-largest in the big leagues, and there’s a few obvious answers to that. The clearest cause there is a disaster start Porcello had on April 20 in Anaheim, allowing nine earned runs while managing to collect only two outs. That outing alone inflated his ERA hugely, since without it we’re looking at a 3.80 ERA, much closer to the his 3.51 FIP. While we can’t pretend he didn’t have that terrible start, it also doesn’t seem that indicative of the pitcher he is right now, and it’s not difficult to think that the ugly 4.49 ERA is scaring owners away.

What’s also interesting on that ERA-FIP leaderboard is that Porcello isn’t the only Tiger on it. Doug Fister, Justin Verlander, and Max Scherzer all join Porcello on the Top 26, and as a team, the Tigers have the biggest ERA-FIP gap in the game. That’s not much of a surprise, since the infield defense is porous at the corners with Prince Fielder & Miguel Cabrera, who simply don’t turn balls into outs like other cornermen do. That won’t change, but Porcello — and all Tiger pitching — could get a boost in that department with the addition of spectacular defender Jose Iglesias, who is expected to be the new regular shortstop assuming that Jhonny Peralta is about to get suspended in the next few days for his involvement in the Biogenesis scandal. Considering that Porcello is second only to Justin Masterson in percentage of ground balls generated, that can only help his run prevention stats.

So noting that one atrocious game and the likelihood of improved infield defense should help the perception of Porcello (though only so much, because even given Iglesias’ reputation for excellent defense, Peralta is at worst the second-best defender in the Detroit infield, depending on how you feel about Omar Infante). But he’s also put specific effort into improving against opposite-handed hitters, as he told our own Eno Sarris last month:

The Tiger starter told me that he “really dedicated” himself to working on his curve this offseason, mostly because the cutter/slider “wasn’t really working.” Since it moves left to right, it cuts right into the meat of the plate for lefties. “The curveball is a more effective pitch to left-handers, which is something I struggle with,” Porcello admitted to me before his team played the White Sox in Chicago this week. Over his career, the pitcher has allowed lefties lower strikeout and grounder rates and higher walk rates than he has allowed to righties.

So this past winter, Porcello went to work: “The first thing I did this offseason was to really fine-tune my mechanics to where I was getting to a consistent release point, keeping everything the same, and from there, basically throwing my curveball out of the same arm slot as my fastball and changeup and just getting consistent with it.” A lot of throwing sessions later, he was a three-pitch pitcher coming into the season.

This year, he’s more than tripled his usage of the curve against lefties. It’s now his primary pitch when ahead against lefties. And he has the highest swinging strike, strikeout and ground-ball rates of his career. His FIP against lefties — career 4.47 — dropped to 3.81. For the first time in his career, he’s above-average against lefties.

Porcello’s continued improving his swing-and-miss stuff, while limiting homers and minimizing platoon splits, and now he may have the benefit of an upgrade at the most important defensive position. He’s not a star, because no fantasy pitcher with a K/9 that can’t crack seven is going to be, but he’s better than you think he is — and it doesn’t require an incredibly deep AL-only league to make him worth a shot.

Mike Petriello used to write here, and now he does not. Find him at @mike_petriello or MLB.com.

newest oldest most voted

I think that in the last paragraph you meant K/9, but nevertheless, interesting piece on an interesting pitcher.