Remember the first six weeks of the season? Those were simpler times. Let’s not talk about what’s gone wrong writ large. Let’s talk about one problem and it’s root cause. Rick Porcello was awesome through May 17. Don’t believe me? Here are numbers!
|Through May 17||8||52.2||2.91||3.22||3.34|
Tremendous! Great work Rick! Not only did you carry your 2013 improvements over to 2014, you’re actually getting better against lefties and with men on base. Everything’s coming up Milhouse!
Uh oh! That’s not very good. If you’ll recall, after that great start on May 17, Porcello got a couple extra days of rest due to an injured left side. The Tigers said they wanted to be very careful and I don’t know if the two things are certainly related, but take a look at his release point adjustment since May 17 when the injury was revealed:
Porcello might not be healthy, or he may have gotten into bad habits to protect the once injured side. It could be nothing, or it could be something.
It’s possible that the title of this post is a touch hyperbolic. But then again, not really. It depends on your definition of ace. At this exact moment in time, Porcello isn’t one of the best dozen starters in the game, but he’s quietly turning himself into a top tier arm that could anchor most MLB rotations as a #2 starter, and could slide in as the best pitcher on quite a few teams. Yeah, maybe “ace” is a generous description, but Porcello is very good and will continue to be.
I’ve been beating this drum for years, so my apologies if I’ve already won you over, but it demands repeating. Porcello isn’t just a really good #5 starter anymore, he’s a bona fide good starting pitcher. He might even be arriving as a star.
Let’s cover some of the particulars. Porcello was good enough in his first two seasons (09-10), was a little better in (11-12), and then broke out in 2013. He’s consistently been worthy of an MLB job, but he went from solid backend guy to legitimate building block over the last couple of years. He went from a low strikeout, high ground ball guy to an average strikeout, high ground ball guy. The big leap in strikeouts in 2013 pushed Porcello forward. And he’s sustained that improvement in 2014 while also slicing his walk totals to Cliff Lee-ian levels. Take a look.
His FIP and xFIP have improved in each of his six seasons and his ERA has improved in each of the last five. This year, he’s also limiting the damage against lefties, cutting his wOBA against them by something like 70 points so far. Some of this is also about context. Porcello has thrown up (essentially) three straight 3.0 fWAR seasons (we always use FanGraphs WAR here, if you’re new) and is on pace for something more like 4.0+ WAR this year. Granted, we’re only about 15% of the way through the season and he probably won’t really only walk 3.3% of hitters, but the gains he made last year seem like they’re here to stay. Take a look at his swinging strikes per pitch over his career.
The case against Porcello, of which there are a number of advocates, fails to consider three important things. First, as hard as we try to change things, ERA still comes first for most people and Porcello has had inflated ERA’s in the past because he played in front of bad defenses. He allowed a lot of singles because no one could get to the ball. This year, in front of real defenders, he has a career best batting average against (.239), WHIP (1.00), and BABIP (.272). He’s not doing a whole lot differently, but his defense isn’t letting the ball get through as easily, which is helping keep that ERA in check.
Another thing to consider is that just because Porcello has been around forever, doesn’t mean he’s immune from normal expectations. Jose Fernandez like dominance at 21 is extremely rare. Porcello was big league ready at 20, but that doesn’t mean he was done developing at 20. He’s worked on things and improved over the course of his career, but he’s only 25. Justin Verlander’s age 25 season was his third full year. It will be Porcello’s sixth. Justin Verlander was a 3-4 WAR guy from ages 23-25. From ages 26-29, Verlander was a 6-8 WAR pitcher. I’m not saying Porcello is Verlander, but it’s not crazy to say that he’ll get better into his late 20s. Pitchers peak as they approach 30 and Porcello isn’t anywhere close.
Beyond that, Porcello is simply overshadowed. Tigers fans are spoiled. We think it’s normal to have Verlander AND Scherzer AND Sanchez AND (at one time) Fister. That’s not normal. Most teams have one guy who can get into that conversation. The Tigers have had 3-4 aces over each of the last four seasons. That’s ridiculous. Porcello isn’t as good as Scherzer, but you don’t have to be as good as Scherzer to be pretty freaking good.
I don’t think Porcello is going to turn into a Hall of Fame arm, but I do think there’s more improvement coming. Last year, he added a curveball to help him add strikeouts. This year, he found a way to make use of a slider that had previously been terrible. He’s making better use of his swing back fastball (see below) and he’s finding the right moments to dial up at blast 94-95 by batters.
People have been predicting the Porcello leap forever, but I hate to break it to them, the breakouts have been happening. He has taken many steps forward over the years but they were hidden by rough defense and the occasional blow up outing. This year, he’s locked in. Maybe it’s maturity or experience kicking in, maybe Avila and Jones figured something out, maybe he didn’t like Leyland’s secondhand smoke. I’m not totally sure.
For crying out loud, small sample size and such understood, he has the same K% as Verlander right now. For a variety of reasons, Porcello’s own fans haven’t appreciated the development. But when you examine the body of work, he’s actually on a great path. The Tigers have him for one more season (through 2015). For all the talk about Scherzer’s extension, Porcello is the guy they should be chasing. He’s not as good right now, but Porcello is going to get better and Scherzer is going to slowly decline as he ages. The best extensions are the ones for guys in the their 20s, not their 30s. You bet on the guy trending up and Porcello is definitely in that class.
It may be difficult to look at a guy who’s the fourth best starter on his team and think he’s terrific, but that’s only a problem because he happens to be on such an historic staff. If he was on the Twins or the Pirates or the Orioles or the Cubs he’d look like a star. Hopefully he’ll be cursed with this perception problem for his entire career and will stay in a Tigers uniform in Verlander’s shadow. He might not be an ace, but we’re at the point where one more little improvement could push him into that conversation.
It was just a couple of months ago that I wrote about Porcello’s breakout season and then I did it again as he broke out even further four weeks later. This was the year that Rick Porcello made the leap from really good #5 starter to really good starter without the numerical qualification. He’s been scratched from his final scheduled start tonight to get ready for his postseason role out of the pen, so it’s time to look back on his season. It was an excellent campaign for the 24 year old right-hander and it’s only a sign of things to come.
Right off the bat, it’s worth noting that these numbers would look even better if the Angels didn’t possess some sort of Rick Porcello kryptonite, as he participated in two blowup starts involving that opponent. But I won’t drop those starts out because you don’t need to drop those two starts out to demonstrate Porcello’s ascendancy into the upper ranks of AL starting pitchers. (19th in WAR, 6th in xFIP, 17th in FIP in the AL)
It’s well documented that Porcello scrapped his very troublesome slider for a curveball and started throwing the changeup more often this year. It’s also worth noting that he is 24 years old and has 149 MLB starts under his belt. Pitchers tend to peak in their late twenties and here Porcello is a year away from free agency and he won’t be 25 until two days after Christmas. Which is to say, there’s more development coming. Verlander didn’t become VERLANDER until he was 26. Scherzer came even later. Rick Porcello has loads of MLB experience ahead of his prime and things are looking great.
Let’s start with his strikeout and walk rates over the course of his career, both per 9 and as percentages of total batters faced:
So what we have here is a pitcher with a very low walk rate who went from modest strikeout gains every year to a huge leap in strikeouts this year. And if we’re talking strikeouts, it gets better if you look month to month. Porcello had some fluctuation this year, but he had four months that were as good or better than about every month he had previously in his career. Only July stands out, because as we documented in earlier work, Porcello’s breakout came after his disaster start on April 20. This is the new Porcello:
He’s also seeing an uptick in his ground ball percentage.
Wrap that all together and you’ve got yourself a heck of a trend in terms of run prevention and expected run prevention.
Porcello’s ERA is always going to look on the high side if he plays in front of a poor infield defense like the Tigers (Iglesias will help big time), but he’s lowered it every season in conjunction with better peripheral numbers. He doesn’t walk people, he dramatically increased his strikeout rate, and he gets a ton of ground balls, which are good because ground balls don’t go for extra base hits nearly as often as fly balls.
But it’s more than his ability to keep guys off the bases with his new found love of the strikeout, it’s what’s happening even when he allows a ball to be put in play. He’s allowed the lowest slugging percentage against of his career. His well-hit average against is the lowest of his career and the same is true of his wOBA against.
Not only is Porcello striking out more batters, he’s also inducing weaker contact when batters do manage to put the ball in play. He’s getting better results, too, and he’s still just 24. Let’s look at Verlander and Porcello side by side through their age 24 seasons:
That’s right, Porcello had a better FIP and xFIP through age 24 in twice as many innings as the great Verlander and he has a higher WAR through age 24 as well. It’s often difficult to realize that while Porcello has been around forever, he’s also just a kid. He’s done more before his 25th birthday than Verlander and Verlander just signed a $200 million contract. A lot can happen from 25-30.
Well, then. Justin Verlander got way better after his 25th birthday. He increased his K/9 by 2 and dropped his walk rate a bit, which turned into a lower ERA, FIP, and xFIP despite the same BABIP. He increased his innings per start from 6.2 to 6.8 and became the best and richest pitcher in the sport.
I’m not saying Porcello’s going to be Verlander. Not at all. But he’s going to be really good because pitchers who are this good when they’re young (and who stay healthy) get better when they hit their prime. Porcello’s prime is still coming. He’s never missed a start due to injury and he’s making the kinds of progressions that we’d expect to see from a pitcher developing into a star.
When I wrote back in June about Porcello’s breakout I made very similar comparisons and used very similar looking graphs. It all looks the same today. This wasn’t a month long blip. This was a real thing and it’s about to get even real-er. Porcello will be 25 next season and entering his walk year. The Tigers have a lot of big contracts promised to their high end talent and Cabrera and Scherzer are both looming extensions coming in the next 24 months. But Cabrera is 30 and Scherzer will be 30 next summer. Rick Porcello is 24.
This may sound strange, but Rick Porcello is the guy you lock up. Maybe they’ll pay Scherzer and Cabrera too, but Porcello is the bet to make today. A long term deal buys his late twenties – his prime – instead of paying Scherzer and Cabs for their thirties, and it’s time to strike before the Rays, A’s, and Red Sox get their sabermetric claws out. The Cubs are going to be looking to contend in 2015. So are the Astros. That should scare you if you’re a Tigers fan because I promise you those teams see the value in Porcello. You can’t let him get away because he’s good and he’s young. The Tigers need to sign Porcello to a 5 year deal tonight while he’s watching Jose Alvarez fill in for him as he gets ready to move to the pen for the playoffs.
Porcello is unquestionably baseball’s best 5th starter. It’s what makes the Tigers great and it’s what will make the Tigers great for years to come, except in two years he won’t be the #5, he’ll be the #2. This season was Porcello’s breakout and it’s been a joy to watch. We’ve seen his last start in 2013, but if the Tigers are smart, we’ll have years more to enjoy.
The present author has made no attempt to hide his affection for Rick Porcello and Doug Fister. Low walk starters who get a lot of ground balls are a personal favorite and you’re just going to have to accept me for who I am. You’ve seen a lot on these two starters and their ground balling ways over the course of this season, so here’s a little reward for all of you who have stuck around.
Presumably you’re aware that Porcello and Fister get a lot of ground balls, and there’s a chance that you know they’re currently third and fourth among qualifying starters in ground ball percentage at 55.2% and 54.5%, trailing only Masterson and Burnett. And Burnett gets to face the pitcher, so he shouldn’t really count.
Below, I’ve traced their pace from the start of the season through today. Both Fister and Porcello have one more start each before the season wraps up and the team ground ball championship is still up (or down?!) for grabs. Let’s take a look:
Fister led the way for the first half of the season but Porcello made his move around the midway point and it’s been neck and neck since right around start #22 for each. Porcello has a narrow lead entering the final round, but Fister could induce a few double plays and put himself in position to take home the title.
Reports are scare as to what the particular award will be for the winner, but this seems like something for which New English D should take the time to name and have a ceremony. I can’t imagine either starter would show up, especially considering they’ll be busy trying to win the World Series, but as we enter each pitcher’s final turn through the rotation, the battle for which hurler can induce more ground balls is still very much an open question.
From Last Night:
- Harvey and Kuroda deliver a classic duel in NY
- Lee dominates the Red Sox, wins 3-1
- Rays walk off against the Marlins
- McCann homers in the 10th to lift the Braves over the Jays
What I’m Watching Today:
- Zimmermann faces the Orioles in Baltimore (7p Eastern)
- McCarthy looks to stay hot against the Rangers (8p Eastern)
- Weaver returns to action against the Dodgers (10p Eastern)
The Big Question:
- How do you like some of these home and home series in MLB?
Cliff Lee in 2013: 7.03 K/9, 1.45 BB/9, 0.56 HR/9, 39.1 GB% 2.34 ERA, 2.84 FIP, 3.63 xFIP, 2.0 WAR
Rick Porcello in 2013: 7.06 K/9, 1.76 BB/9, 1.24 HR/9, 55.7 GB%, 5.29 ERA, 3.93 ERA, 3.15 xFIP, 0.7 WAR
Once their HR/FB rates normalize (5.5% to 19.4%), they’re basically the same pitcher with Porcello getting the ball on the ground more often. I’m not saying Porcello is going to be Cliff Lee, but so far, it’s not such a crazy thought. (Innings aside)
A nice bounce back for Porcello.
Tigers 7, Braves 4
The Tigers came into today’s game on a high note thanks to a 10-0 win on Friday, but the starting pitcher, Rick Porcello was coming off his worst performance by results of his career. The Tigers would provide him with 7 runs thanks in part to homeruns by Peralta and Infante and Porcello wouldn’t need more. His only issue came in the 3rd inning when he allowed 3 runs, but none of the balls were hit hard and three batters reached via infield groundballs. His only real mistake was a bases loaded walk to Dan Uggla. Aside from the 3rd inning, Porcello allowed just one hit over his 6.1 innings of work while striking out 5 and using his changeup more effectively than I can ever remember. Smyly finished the 7th with two strikeouts and Benoit got three outs in the 8th despite allowing a Justin Upton homerun. Leyland called for Valverde in the 9th for his second appearance of the season and he retired the Braves in order. With the win, the Tigers improve to 12-10 on the season and set themselves up to go for a sweep of the Braves on Sunday night behind Doug Fister (27 IP, 3-0, 2.00 ERA, 3.55 FIP, 0.5 WAR).
The Moment: Infante delivers a 2-out homer in the 4th to put the Tigers ahead for good.
Kind of a laugher.
Angels 10, Tigers 0
The Tigers lost their third straight game today and we can point to two distinct causes. First, the offense has really just not gotten anything going over the last few days. Second, Rick Porcello had one of the most hard luck innings you’ll ever see. He faced 11 hitters, gave up 9 hits, 1 walk, and 9 runs, retiring just two batters courtesy of the double play. At first, you wouldn’t really see how that qualifies as hard luck, but the Angels only hit two balls hard. The rest were weakly hit balls that just barely made it through the infield or died on the infield grass. Leyland mercifully pulled him after he surrendered the second hard hit ball, a grand slam to Trout, but it was too late for any justice for Porcello. It certainly wasn’t a great start, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as the box score indicates. Luckily for the Tigers, Drew Smyly was excellent in relief. He went 5.2 innings, allowed 4 hits and struck out 7 to really save the bullpen. The Angels and the Tigers both failed to do much else offensively and the game whimpered to its conclusion. You can imagine there will be Smyly versus Porcello speculation in the coming days, but it’s far too early to bail on your early season decisions. I’m a Porcello believer, but even if a change needs to be made eventually, you can’t make that call based on the information you have so far. The Tigers fall to 9-8 after today’s loss and lose their first series since the opening one in Minnesota. They’ll try to salvage one behind Doug Fister tomorrow.
The Moment: Mike Trout ends Porcello’s day with a grand slam to center.
It got away from us.
Blue Jays 8, Tigers 6
The day began with a two hour and twenty-nine minute rain delay and ended with a whimper in the face of a home plate umpire who wanted to go home. The Tigers jumped ahead with a run in the first and second innings and a strong opening from Rick Porcello and entered the fifth inning up 2-0. Porcello gave up a run in the top half and the offense broke out in the bottom half as the Tigers chased Buehrle and worked some walks to take a 6-1 lead. But it unraveled quickly as the Porcello allowed a couple quick baserunners in the 6th and was promptly pulled by Leyland for Downs who let Porcello’s baserunners come around. It would be no better in the 7th as Villarreal walked three batters without recording and out and yielded to Dotel who allowed all of them to score. The comic relief came in the 8th inning as Octavio Dotel took a comebacker directly between his legs, resulting in a short delay while his teammates laughed at him.
The Tigers bats weren’t as ferocious today as they were yesterday, but still managed to put up 6 runs against a solid Jays team. Porcello pitched well for most of the game even if the line doesn’t show it because he got yanked in the midst of a rough inning. The bullpen was the trouble today at Comerica Park, but we were treated to a Prince Fielder infield single. Regardless, the Tigers will send Doug Fister to the mound tomorrow against Josh Johnson with a shot to take the series.
The Moment: Octavio Dotel takes a groundball in a personal area in the 8th.
Kind of a meltdown.
Twins 8, Tigers 2
At different points this afternoon, different storylines sought to grab the headline. When the game began, I was expecting to write about how well Rick Porcello performed with his new curveball (5.2IP, 3ER, 2BB, 2K), but that faded quickly as the innings wore on. Porcello threw some encouraging curveballs and went deeper into the game than Verlander or Sanchez had, but was relatively average and gave up a couple of gopherballs to Willingham and Plouffe. The Tigers finally looked poised to breakout after the first two men reached in the 7th inning, but a strikeout by Hunter, a walk to Cabrera, a strikeout by Fielder, and a popout by Martinez dashed those hopes. Dirks led off the following inning with a four pitch walk, but was stranded by Peralta and Avila. The wheels came off in the Twins 5 run 8th and the Tigers went quietly in the 9th.
It wasn’t a great showing by the team, particularly the offense. Porcello pitched well enough to beat the Twins and the offense came up short in numerous situations that could have changed the dynamics heading into the disastrous bottom of the 8th. Entering the 9th inning on Wednesday, the Tigers were three outs away from taking the series and setting up a sweep, but over the next ten innings of baseball they let that slip away and will leave the Twin Cities with a 1-2 record on the young season. Certainly the Tigers’ bats will wake up as the season hurtles forward, but you never like to lose 2 out of 3 to an inferior team, even if it was on the road and in the cold.
The Tigers will send Doug Fister to the hill tomorrow against Ivan Nova and the Yankees for the home opener at Comerica Park. If you’re heading downtown tomorrow, enjoy it for me. It will be the first Opening Day since I moved to North Carolina and the idea of not being there is a touch depressing.
Let this be your reminder that it’s a long season and anything can happen on any given day. The Tigers will be fine and now isn’t even close to the time for panicking. Unless you read the news about Valverde. In which case, you might be feeling some tightness in your chest. That’s normal and to be expected. Try to breath.
The Moment: Fielder K’s down by one with the bases loaded and one out in the 7th
Due to the glorious reality that we now have actual baseball to watch and dissect rather than just future baseball to dissect, we can start to look for early seasons indications of how the season is going to turn out.
Here are five Tigers-related things I’ll be looking for in the early days.
1. Rick Porcello’s Breaking Ball
Porcello was the subject of lots of trade rumors and fifth starter battles, but he has silenced his critics with a strong spring for the time being. He dumped his slider for a curveball this season and the results have been great. In 2012, opposing batters hit .394 against his slider for a lot more power, but the early returns on the curveball have been promising. He had a great spring (not that you should put much stock in the numbers) and the curveball was a much better compliment to his fastball. The velocity separation was bigger and it kept hitters off balance. If Porcello can continue to utilize that pitch against bona fide big leaguers, he could tick his strikeout numbers up and turn into the #2/#3 starter that he was projected to be. Frankly, he’s been a 2-3 WAR pitcher over the last few seasons, so he’s already good enough for most rotations. If he develops into anything more (remember he’s still 24), he could be a borderline All-Star.
2. Andy Dirks’ Bat
The Tigers everyday left fielder had a phenomenal slash line last season (.322/.370/.487) but only played in 88 games due to injury. Those numbers are relatively consistent with his minor league numbers, so we have reason to believe the 27 year old lefty can produce like this again, but the MLB sample size is small. Hitting in the midst of a strong lineup should help, but I’ll be looking to see if Andy Dirks is really this good, or if the truth is hiding behind last year’s small sample. A lot of scouts see Dirks as a really good fourth outfielder, but I’m a fan of his skills and think he can stick as a third outfielder on a good club.
3. Torii Hunter’s BABIP
Hunter had his best big league season by WAR and batting average last year, but a lot of that was driven by an unusually high batting average on balls in play (BABIP). Typically, you expect to see a number around .300 with the game’s best hitters leaning toward .330 or .340. You generally don’t see players, especially older ones improving on their BABIPs outside of randomness, meaning any big one year spike should be observed with caution. Hunter had such a spike last year, posting a .389 BABIP on a .307 career mark. Most people see those numbers and think Hunter was the recipient of good fortune last year and was not as good as his numbers indicate. He’s always been a good defender, but is he actually as good as his last season at the plate? Probably not, but that’s okay. He’s a 2-3 WAR corner outfielder replacing Brennan Boesch who was a -1 WAR player last year. Even if Hunter isn’t a 5 WAR player this season, he’ll still be good. But keep an eye on Hunter’s BABIP. If it’s high and stays that way, it may indicate a change in approach in his old age for the better.
4. Alex Avila’s Power
The difference between Avila’s 2011 (4.6 WAR) and 2012 (2.4) is twofold. One was health (141 games to 116). The other was power (.506 SLG to .384). A lot of people focus on batting average, but walking is such a big part of his game that average obscures the truth. Even last year, he got on base at a .352 clip, which is very good despite a .243 average. He’s probably not going to be the .295 hitter he was in 2011, but if he gets some of that power back, he’ll be as good as he needs to be. A catcher who gets on base at a .350 to .360 rate with .440 to .460 slugging is a hugely valuable asset given his quality defense. If Avila is driving the ball for extra bases early and his knees aren’t sapping his power in April, the Tigers can rest easy knowing 2013 will look more like 2011 than 2012 for Avila.
5. Max Scherzer’s Delivery
I’ve said on many occasions that the key to Scherzer taking the leap from really good stuff and pretty good results to top flight starter was his ability to keep his delivery in line pitch after pitch. Last season, he started to put it all together and led qualifiers in K/9. If he can keep on that path, he could be an All-Star with borderline Cy Young stuff. If he gets out of whack, we’ll know he’s likely always going to have that flaw. He has a lot of moving parts when he winds up, so an early season showing that Scherzer can repeat his delivery will bode well for the Tigers’ fortunes this year.
What are some other important things to watch in April? Let us know what you think in the comments or on Facebook.