Saturday, June 15, 2013

The Maturing of Rick Porcello

Many Tigers fans were ready to give up on 24-year-old Rick Porcello going into the this season.  He had always shown good control and an ability to induce ground balls, but he frustrated us with his inability to miss bats and failure to pitch deep into games.  With sophomore left-hander Drew Smyly seemingly ready for regular rotation duty, many felt it was time to trade Porcello.  There were rumors about trades for closers or minor league infielders prior to the season, but nothing ever materialized and the Tigers apparently made the right move in holding on to him. 

Porcello had a promising spring training replacing his ineffective slider with a curve and showing an improved change-up. Fans once again became impatient with the right hander though when he got off to a sluggish start and skepticism turned to grave concern when he allowed nine runs in the first inning on April 20 versus the Angels. With his ERA now up to 11.08, disappointed fans could not understand why the Tigers kept putting him out there while Smyly was seemingly being wasted as a long reliever. Even Porcello's most loyal followers were beginning to wonder if he would ever take the next step forward. 

Since that abysmal start versus Los Angeles, Porcello has posted  a 2.84 ERA and fantastic 56/10 strikeout to walk ratio over nine starts and 57 innings.  This is by far the best stretch of his career and the only time he has shown any consistent ability to strike batters out.  For the season, Porcello has struck out a career best 7.6 strikeouts per nine innings.  That is a remarkable improvement over a 5.5 strikeout rate in 2012 and 5.2 for his career.  This is no fluke - strikeout rates do not improve by two per game over 70 innings by accident.

Porcello has not sacrificed anything to increase his strikeout total as his walk rate (1.7 per nine innings) and ground ball rate (56%) are also career bests. His ERA is only 4.37, but that is mostly because of the one awful start.  Take away that one game and his ERA is 3.26. 

So, Porcello is experiencing sustained success for the longest period of his career, but we have to dig a little deeper to understand why.  The  top theories as to why he is doing better are:
  • Less reliance on sinker
  • Adopting the curve as his primary breaking pitch instead of a slider
  • An improved change-up
The encouraging thing is that the data back up all these ideas.  Figure 1 below from Brooks Baseball shows the change in his pitch usage.  He clearly is is using his sinker less (down from 54% in 2012 to 40% in 2013) and his change-up more (14% to 19%).  The chart also confirms that he has essentially replaced his slider with a curve. 

Figure 2, also from Brooks, suggests why his curve is better than his slider. While the slider was very straight, the curve has quite a bit of horizontal movement, especially this year.  I'm not sure how much that is driving the results, but the numbers are excellent.  Last year, his slider was tattooed for a .410 batting average and .638 slugging average.  This year, batters have hit his curve at a very reasonable .238/.416 clip. 


Figure 3 gives us a clue as to the effectiveness of his change-up.  The Whiff Percentage (or percentage of change-ups that result in a swing and miss) has increased each year, with the biggest jump coming this year (13% in 2012 to 16% in 2013).  You'll notice that the Slider Whiff Percentage is also up, but you can probably ignore that as he rarely throws it this year.  Anyway, the more effective change-up is showing up in the results.  Last year, he allowed a .250/.410 BA/SLG on change-ups.  This year it's down to .215/. 308 and he has almost as many strikeouts on change-ups (17) as his trusted sinker (18).  


 Finally, Figure 4 shows where all the ground balls are coming from.  The ground ball rates on his sinker (60% in 2012 to 70% in  in 2013) and curve ball (43% to 63%) have both increased substantially.


It's still too early to say that Porcello's career has turned around and that he will keep pitching like a number two or three starter as he has the last nine starts.  It's clear though that he is using a very different approach this year and getting much better results so far.

There are not a lot of fans asking for Porcello to be traded anymore and those that still want a trade are demanding much bigger returns. 


  1. AnonymousJune 15, 2013

    Also he's a darkhorse candidate for a late trade when making the playoff run. Hopefully we can sell him on a high point if we do something like that. There's a decent chance for that to make it a good candidate trade.

  2. AnonymousJune 17, 2013

    I've always thought we should hold onto him. He came up very young, and it just takes some pitchers a while before things start to click. I think he still has a chance to be very good. Mind ya, that's not to say he didn't frustrate the hell out of me along the way so far. But I don't trade him unless the return makes it impossible not to.



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