Rob made a case yesterday for Rick Porcello to start against the Nationals rather than pushing him back to Sunday against the Indians. I agree with his thought process, and it has nothing to do with Doug Fister struggling yesterday. However, I believe a more ideal (and admittedly more unrealistic) scenario would have been to push Drew Smyly back to Sunday and permanently move Porcello to the bullpen.
Porcello's early season struggles coupled with Smyly's dazzling start have made a potential change to the rotation more compelling. Although Smyly's brilliant, yet inconsequential work out of the bullpen yesterday all but eliminates him from starting on Sunday, I believe Leyland should make the change after Porcello's next start.
For several reasons, Smyly would be a better starting pitcher for the Tigers than Porcello. First, his pitching style and outcomes fit the Tigers' defense better than Porcello's. Smyly has struck out an impressive 8.67 batters per nine innings and walked a respectable 2.87 per nine innings over his 119-1/3 innings pitched for the Tigers (prior to Thursday), which include his 18 starts last year. Additionally, his 40.1 percent groundball rate would put less pressure on the Tigers' infield defense than Porcello's 52.5 percent career rate.
Over the course of his four-plus seasons with the Tigers, Porcello has posted consistent numbers, striking out exactly five batters and walking 2.32 per nine innings. Porcello can rear back and throw 96 on occasion, though he averages 91.6 miles per hour on his fastball on the season, according to STATS LLC. Out of the bullpen, Porcello's average velocity would likely increase, leading to a few more strikeouts and even more bite to his sinkerball. Porcello's ability to induce groundballs could benefit the Tigers in a situation when they need a double play late in the game.
As Rob mentioned, Porcello has significant career platoon splits, with an .819 OPS allowed against right-handed batters compared to a .711 OPS allowed against left-handed batters. He also has induced 6 percent more groundballs against righties than lefties. So let's imagine a situation in which Porcello comes out for the eighth inning slated to face Mike Trout, Albert Pujols, and Mark Trumbo (assuming Hamilton is still batting fifth). I believe his outing would last longer than his most recent start against the Angels, and be much more successful.
Counterarguments certainly are valid. Porcello at 24 years old is still young, and with 49 wins under his belt he could attract suitors who believe he will improve. Sending him to the bullpen does diminish his trade value. However, I think his relative consistency and career 4.66 ERA, even if inflated given the Tigers infield defense, will not generate many enticing offers. Given the Tigers' current window to contend for a World Series, the gain from adding Smyly to the rotation outweighs the marginal loss to Porcello's value.
Regarding the upside of giving the Smyly the ball every fifth day, I believe he is currently a better pitcher and better fit for the team than Porcello. He does have significant platoon splits (.585 OPS allowed against left-handed batters compared to a .737 OPS against right-handed batters), though his hard slider that almost acts as a cutter can jam right-handed batters.
Also, the Tigers could use the flexibility of having a left-handed pitcher as their fifth starter. Leyland has been willing to go to a four-man rotation early in the season as long as the Tigers have a day off. Smyly has shown that he can smoothly transition between virtual starts in long relief and short stints out of the bullpen. Therefore, Leyland would have the ability to give Smyly the nod against the Yankees and their short porch in New York, but possibly move him back to the bullpen if he wants to skip his turn in the rotation. In a small sample size, this has not worked well with Porcello, as Rob noted.
Ultimately, Smyly's future outings should have a greater average impact on the outcome of the game. Thursday's 1 2/3 scoreless innings of relief did not change the fact that the Tigers trailed the Nationals for good. I do not want to overreact to the incredible start Smyly has add to the season, allowing just three runs in 21 2/3 innings. Rather, I believe his solid performance in 2012, his high strikeout rate, and his relatively low ground ball rate compared to Porcello would make him one of the best fifth starters in the majors and certainly an upgrade for the Tigers.