Saturday, May 18, 2013

Does Rick Porcello Finally Have a Strikeout Pitch?

After seeing ace Justin Verlander allow eight runs in less than three innings to the powerful Texas Rangers on Thursday, Tigers fans feared the worst when Rick Porcello took the mound last night.  Porcello silenced doubters with a strong performance against a tough line-up allowing just one run while striking out six in 5 2/3 innings.  This was Porcello's fourth solid game since his first-inning meltdown versus the Angels on April 20.  During that span, he has a 3.24 ERA and 24/5 K/BB ratio over 25 innings. 

The most encouraging feature of the above statistical line is the high strikeout total.  According to Porcello's game logs on Baseball-Reference.com, he has struck out six plus batters in his last three games.  This is hardly an impressive feat on a staff which features strikeout artists such as Anibal Sanchez, Max Scherzer and Verlander.  However, it is the first such three-game string of Porcello's career. 

I wanted to see which pitches the strikeouts came on, so I checked the Game Day results of his last three games at MLB.COM.  THey were as follows:

May 2 versus Houston
Change-up swinging
Change-up swinging
four-seam fastball called
Change-up called
Curveball called
Change-up swinging
Four-seam fastball swinging

May 12 versus Cleveland
Change-up swinging
Sinker called
Sinker called
Sinker swinging
Change-up called
Four-seam fastball called

May 17 versus Texas
Four-seam swinging
Change-up swinging
Change-up swinging
Change-up swinging
Curveball swinging
Curveball called

If you count them up, you'll see the following totals:

Change-ups 9
Four-seam fastballs 4
Sinkers 3
Curves 3

So, he is making good use his change-up which is something that Jeff Roberts of Eye on the Tigers noted earlier this week. Roberts used FanGraphs data to show that it has been Porcello's most improved pitch this year in terms of linear weights results.

Porcello has had good stretches before where he prevented runs with good control and lots of ground balls, but his inability to miss bats (only five strikeouts per nine innings for his career) has always come back to haunt him.  His annual  strikeouts by pitch according to Brooks Baseball.net (plus last night's game) are shown in the table below.  (You may notice that the strikeout totals in the bottom row are not quite right in some cases, but I trust that the Brooks Baseball pitch type data are the most accurate available. 

Table 1: Rick Porcello's Strikeouts by Pitch Type


Pitch type
2009
2010
2011
2012
2013
Four-seam fastball
25
22
24
17
3
Sinker
33
30
36
55
7
Slider
11
23
37
17
4
Curveball
7
1
5
4
4
Change-up
12
10
14
14
13
Totals
88
86
118
107
27

Data source: Brooks Baseball.net

The most striking number on the table is the 13 strikeouts on change-ups already in 2013, nine of which came in the last three games.  This is remarkable because Porcello has never struck out more than 14 on his change in any season.  Some of that is due to increased usage of the pitch which is a good thing if it's working.  Time will tell whether he can maintain the effectiveness of his change throughout a full season, but it's encouraging and something to watch in his upcoming starts.

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