Ah, Rick Porcello. The 27th pick overall in the first round of the 2007 draft, he defied all expectations by making it to the MLB as a 20-year-old kid in 2009. More than just holding his own, he dominated for strings of games at a time. This led many to conclude he was ready to make the next step in 2010, so they concluded he was the No. 2 pitcher in the Tigers rotation and would only get better with time.
It didn't quite work that way. Porcello instead struggled to keep runners off bases, showed a step back in his ability to gets, and he put up an ERA of 4.92 to sow for it. He even spent about a month with Triple-A Toledo in the middle of the season.
It was a disappointment, but at least it was the kind of disappointment you can expect for a young player. He is still raw and his body is still maturing. He was rushed to the MLB a bit before he was ready, so there's growth left to achieve, and that takes time. You can expect improvement in the future. How much is the real question.
Porcello's season was below average, of course. In the past, there was talk that Porcello pitched to contact because he was trying to be efficient with his pitches and gets outs faster so he could last longer in his game. The stuff was there, but it wasn't being deployed. Before that, it was said in 2008 he overpowered the batters of the Advanced-A Florida State League so much he didn't really get a chance to strike them out. But what we've learned is that in three professional seasons Porcello has not shown the ability to consistently strike out batters--not even when he really needed a strikeout. His strikeout rate per nine innings dropped slightly from 4.69 per nine innings to 4.65. Fortunately his walks per nine innings fell as well, to 2.10 per nine innings from 2.74 per nine innings.
His Fielding Independent Pitching stats were not consistent in what they told us, however. Normalizing for home run rate--as pitchers have not shown the ability to keep a consistent rate of home runs per fly ball from year to year--he took a step back from 4.32 to 4.40. However, if you do not normalize his FIP improved to 4.31 from 4.77.
The big driver of this season's stats were two things: his batting average on balls in play rose from .286 to .316, and his rate of stranded runners fell to 65.9 percent from 75.5 percent. He also saw a four percent drop to 50 percent for his ground ball rate. Batters also swung and missed less: 5.9 percent vs. 7 percent his rookie season.
His most successful pitches were his fastball and changeup, which were both above average. His slider was a few runs below average but had slightly better than that of the curveball he threw his rookie season.
What 2010 tells us about 2011:
Porcello will return to the Tigers' rotation next season, and his success or failure in it will be one of the driving factors of the Tigers' success or failure as well. It is reasonable to expect his luck on balls in play to show some improvement, which alone should be enough to bring down the number of runs he allows. The strand rate should improve some as well.
Beyond that, it is hard to say what kind of pitcher Porcello will be, because the amount of growth he shows is a mystery at this point. One thing is certain, contact pitcher or not he must be able to strike out more batters if he is to find greater success. The natural talent that resulted in so much hype tells us he should have the raw tools he needs to at least improve his K rate. During a month in Toledo, he improved it to 6.1 strikeouts per nine innings. That alone would result in more major league success.
Given his age, the safe bet is on Porcello showing improvement. Just don't expect a huge turnaround all at once.