Rick Porcello made huge strides Sunday afternoon, after having completed two shaky outings to begin the 2014 season.
A quick glance at the box score shows that he kept his pitch count relatively low and stayed around the strike zone most of the day -- 69 of his 103 pitches were thrown for strikes. He allowed only six base-runners, and he induced 11 ground outs to only two fly outs. All of this information is easy to find when pulling up a recap from Sunday afternoon, and from this it is easy to see how the Angels were held to only one run.
But baseball is not played on paper, as the old cliche goes.
If you had a chance to catch the game on television, or even listen to the radio broadcast, you might have heard how well Porcello's sinkerball was working or how he battled out of a few tough spots. He looked poised and confident on the mound, giving hope to the idea that he's continually going through the maturation process. One of the most under-appreciated and overlooked portions of Porcello's presence on the mound is his ability to hold runners on. Since 2010 his average percentage of runners thrown out in steal attempts is 24 percent. He is not necessarily one of the best in the game at preventing runners from taking bases from him, but he can hold his own.
And Sunday he made damn sure no one would swipe a bag from him.
Howie Kendrick led off the fourth inning with a sharp single to right field. Kendrick is not a huge threat to steal a base, but he has snatched as many as 14 bases three times in his career and already has three this season. The Angels were in a position to steal, with the bottom of the order coming up in a tight 1-1 game. Beyond that, the batter immediately following Kendrick, David Freese, is prone to hitting into double plays.
Kendrick needed to get himself into scoring position and I would assume that everyone on the field knew that he was going to take off on the right pitch. Both sets of opposing announcers were calling for the steal.
Porcello got the first sign from Alex Avila. He came set on the rubber. And he waited. And waited. And waited. Eventually Freese had to call a time out.
Kendrick took off two pitches later and Freese fouled the ball into the dirt. Kendrick's jump to second wasn't huge because Porcello came set, and then immediately started his motion to the plate. Varying your delivery time to the plate prevents the runner from getting a good read on you, and helps eliminate the stolen base opportunity.
When Porcello got the ball again, he threw over to first base. It wasn't a pick-off attempt as much as an acknowledgement to Kendrick. The cat-and-mouse game had begun, all in an attempt to keep Kendrick off-balance.
Porcello continued to vary his delivery times, taking so painfully long on a curveball in the dirt that Freese attempted to call time out again. Instead, he flailed away at the pitch for a strikeout, and the first out of the inning. Fox Sports Detroit play-by-play announcer Mario Impemba commented that it was the longest he had seen Porcello hold a ball before a pitch.
When Hank Conger came up next, Porcello started off the at-bat by throwing over to first base three times. The first was a bullet to Victor Martinez, followed by a straight pick-off attempt. A third throw over showed Kendrick that he would not be forgotten about. With every throw over, it appeared as though Kendrick's lead off of first base was getting smaller.
When the count evened up at two balls and two strikes, a historically good pitch to try and steal a base on, Avila countered by calling for a fastball outside, which just so happens to also be a historically good pitch to call when attempting to throw out a base-stealer.
Avila threw a strike down to second, giving Andrew Romine enough time to catch the ball, read a newspaper, take a nap and brew a cup of coffee before applying the tag.
The threat was neutralized and the momentum had been taken away from the Angels offense. Porcello had prevented the steal when Freese was up, and removed the runner while Conger followed. Now, instead of a runner in scoring position with no one out, Porcello was set up to attack the bottom of the order with sinkers and off-speed pitches. Conger would eventually fly out weakly to right field to end the inning.
Few things can take the wind out of a rallying team's sails like a scoring opportunity squandered. Although Porcello allowed few chances for the Angels offense, he made sure to put an end to them just as quickly as they appeared.