Either the best thing in the world or the worst thing happened earlier this month when Rick Porcello pitched out of the bullpen. Porcello mowed through six batters without allowing one on base during the only relief appearance of his career. The reason behind the decision made sense: The Tigers have so many off days this month that the right-hander needed to get work while stepping out the rotation briefly. Porcello returned to the rotation Saturday, allowed nine runs, and didn't make it out of the first inning.
Rob explored why that really doesn't tell us much about Porcello's season in the grand scheme. It was part bad luck, part bad pitching, likely had little to nothing to do with the relief stint, and strangely almost a year to the day since Porcello allowed nine runs in an inning. Smyly pitched the lion's share the rest of the game Saturday, and at the end of the day had thrown more innings for the year than Porcello had.
The story could end there, but it wouldn't be all that interesting if it did. So here's a suggestion: Switch Porcello's and Smyly's roles. Smyly, a left-hander, moves into the rotation. Porcello moves to the bullpen.
Some probably view this as a bit of a knee-jerk reaction, as giving up on Porcello too soon. I view it as using the tools the team has more efficiently and admitting that Porcello continues not to take steps toward the "breakout" year people annually expect.
His continued inability to put batters away is just one issue. Porcello struck out just three of the 46 batters he faced during the first two games. Saturday, he got to a two-strike count against seven of the 12 batters he faced. He could not ring up a single one. He got just one swinging strike in 47 pitches that inning.
That, coupled with the Tigers' defense not being nearly as strong as it was his rookie year, might explain why his batting average on balls in play is consistently above league average, and his stranded-runner rate is below average. Porcello's woes can be overstated in his full-season stats right now, given Saturday, but suffice it to say there hadn't been noticeable improvement before then either.
Porcello's other persistent issue has been his inability to go deep in games. He has not made it out of the sixth this season. He made it past the sixth just 11 of 31 appearances in 2012. Last year, his average showing was 5 2/3 innings.
There was a reason for that: He dropped off pretty hard after the fifth inning. In 2012 Porcello's ERA jumped nearly two runs from 4.39 in the fifth to 6.75 in the sixth, 8.22 in the seventh and 6.75 in the eighth. His career numbers are actually a lot more even across the innings, although career ERAs of 6.07 in the fourth, 5.33 in the fifth and 5.76 in the sixth do not exactly elicit excitement.
The first time against a batter, Porcello's OPS against is .656 for his career. The second it's .836. The third it's .851. Pitches 1-25, the OPS against is .686. It's .724 for pitches 26-50, and .869 for pitches 51-75. Porcello's 2012 numbers were hardly better.
I could go on, but the point should be clear by now: It gets more and more difficult to make a good argument for keeping Porcello in the rotation when there's a spot in the bullpen available and a better option for the rotation.
Enter Drew Smyly, who has, yes, been effective out of the pen this year. He strikes batters out, for a rate of 22.6 percent of plate appearances in 2012 and 28.8 percent out of the bullpen this year. He's not perfect either. The fourth and fifth innings were trouble spots for Smyly last year before he'd settle in again for a 3.21 ERA in the sixth. Due to his age and lack of innings, Smyly didn't get a lot of appearances past the sixth, but he did have an ERA of 4.32 in innings 7-9 last year.
Compare Smyly's OPS against as he goes deeper into games to Porcello: In pitches 26-50, Smyly is .103 better. Pitches 51-75, Smyly is .119 better. Smyly is .066 better in pitches 76-100 than Porcello was in his career.
Smyly definitely wasn't an ace, but I find it hard to believe there's an argument that says he'd make for a worse starter than Porcello. The Tigers can keep trying to force a situation that hasn't been successful in the past and shows no signs of improvement in the future. Or they can move Smyly back into the rotation and have Porcello relieve, where signs indicate he could be successful.
I'm for making a move.