With 21 days until Spring Training, I thought that I would liven up the preview posts a bit with a controversial topic: Rick Porcello. Should he be the 5th starter? Will the Tigers trade him before the season starts? Would he be better served coming out of the bullpen? We're not sure about the answers to the first two questions, but if you answered "yes" to the third question, you probably won't enjoy what I'm about to write (or my responses to your inevitable comments).
What happened last season?
Porcello wasn't great last season, going 10-12 with a 4.59 ERA in 31 starts. Despite all the vitriol from the Tigers fanbase directed his way, this was actually his lowest ERA since the 3.96 figure he posted in 2009, a rookie season that has for some reason become the entire basis of comparison for Porcello's effectiveness. While the low ERA can be attributed to an increase in both strikeout percentage -- Rick fanned 13.7% of batters he faced -- and groundball percentage -- 53.2% of balls put in play were on the ground, his highest percentage since 2009, again. Porcello's walk rate declined slightly, from 5.9% in 2011 to 5.6% in 2012. He also allowed just 16 home runs, the lowest total of his young career.
What needs to happen in 2013?
Porcello needs to continue what he has been doing. His strikeout rate has been increasing every season of his career without seeing a similar increase in walk rate, which isn't exactly something you see everyday. Porcello's FIP and xFIP both dipped below 4.00 for the first time in his career in 2012, indicating that he was pitching better than his results showed. His BABIP of .344 is another reason why many people have projected him as a breakout candidate in 2013.
For those that believe that the infield defense is the entire reason why Porcello's stats don't match up with those fancy-schmancy FIP numbers, a full year of Omar Infante manning second base will help. If nothing else, Jhonny Peralta will be relieved to throw the ball to the same guy everyday and know that he's not going to drop it or do any number of Ryan Raburn things when he releases the ball. Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder aren't going to dramatically improve their defensive ranges overnight, but Fielder may start to become more comfortable with Infante's range behind him as well, leading to fewer situations where Fielder tries to make a play too far away from the bag.
2012 stats and 2013 Bill James projections
The part where I tell Bill James he's out of his mind and make a completely biased prediction
We have already touched on Drew Smyly and whether he's actually the pitcher we thought he was in April and early May of last season. I think Smyly could be a serviceable 5th starter in the majors -- largely because he was last season -- but a year in Toledo won't hurt his development. The depth that the Tigers have in their starting rotation is arguably their biggest asset outside of having the best hitter and pitcher in the game on their roster. Both Porcello and Smyly will probably have double digit starts this season.
That being said, I think this is the year that we see a bit of a breakthrough from Porcello. He might not light the world on fire and steal a Cy Young from Justin Verlander, but I think he will approach the 15 win plateau with an ERA just a hair over 4.00 in more than 180 innings. These are fairly reasonable numbers from a 3rd starter, but excellent stats from the back end of the rotation.