I think an axiom of sports is that you always prefer the player you know to the player you don't know. You end up overrating your players and overrating your prospects, while underrating other players and underrating other prospects. Maybe not on purpose, but it just seems to work out that way.
So I shouldn't have been shocked when quite a few Bless You Boys readers were confused over why I thought Max Scherzer is clearly the Tigers' No. 2 pitcher, while they are confident that Rick Porcello is the second-best on the team.
Porcello, after all, had a remarkable rookie campaign. His month of May was so incredible he was achieving things that put his name in the same sentence of Cy Young or Doc Gooden. After a stumble, he was the Tigers' most consistent and successful starter during the final six weeks of the season and stepped onto the national stage with an incredible six-inning performance in Game 163. All before he could even legally drink alcohol.
When you've got a guy like that on your team, you're not even noticing the headlines and accolades of a 25-year-old in the National League doing some pretty nice things himself.
He started his MLB career by throwing 4-1/3 perfect innings for a major league record for relievers. Seven of those were strikeouts. The Astros didn't get the ball in play until the sixth batter, and just one batter got the ball out of the infield, Scout.com reports.
SI's Tom Verducci wrote:
Scherzer has big-time stuff. Last year at age 24 he averaged more than a strikeout an inning over 30 starts -- something that's been done by only 20 other pitchers that young in baseball history.
Dave Golebieski noted at Fangraphs Scherzer's 3.88 xFIP ranked him in the top 20 among NL starters and wrote:
There’s little doubt that Scherzer has the talent to become one of the top 20-30 starters in the majors. Few pitchers combine his ability to miss bats with quality control. The question is: can he hold up physically?
And yes, Scherzer pitched in the National League, but he also pitched in ballparks favorable to hitters. Sixteen of his starts came at home at Chase Field (which saw 19.3% more runs scored than average), while another two came at Coors Field (24.7% more) and one at Sun Life Stadium (13.6% more). That's two-thirds of his starts at three of the top four hitters parks.
So it's not as if Scherzer is exactly a slouch either. From a Tigers fan's standpoint, this is kind of a win-win situation. Well, maybe.
Looking at some of the projection systems shows the advantage sits soundly in Scherzer's favor, while Porcello could be in for a reality check.
Looking at Fangraphs for freely available information:
For Scherzer, Bill James' system sees a 3.58 FIP translating to a 3.80 ERA and 194 strikeouts in 180 innings. It also believes his home run/9 innings rate will drop to 0.80 from 0.99, likely because Comerica Park supresses home runs better than average. CHONE has him with a 4.00 FIP, 4.27 ERA and 127 strikeouts in 137 innings. Clearly, it has injury worries.
For Porcello, the James' system has a 4.71 FIP and 4.25 ERA. It's got a slight uptick in striketouts to 105 in 190 innings, but Porcello isn't a strikeout pitcher, so no big deal. The HR/9 rate remains steady at 1.20. CHONE projects more strikeouts, but a 4.93 FIP and 5.08 ERA to go along with 69 strikeouts in 124 innings. So it's pretty conservative about the inning total with Porcello, too.
Baseball Prospectus' data is proprietary, but suffice it to say it shows similar projections for both players.
"Ah!" you might think. "What about the ground ball rate? Don't these projection systems underrate ground ball pitchers? Porcello will do better than they think."
Don't be so sure. Using B-Pro's newly created SIERA statistic, which uses consistent peripheral statistics so (they contend) it should be a useful tool for projection. SIERA includes ground balls. BYB's Mike Rogers used the formula to look at some of the Tigers' pitchers from last year and found Porcello to have a 4.59 SIERA. Scherzer's was 3.53.
Obviously, both pitchers have such a limited major league track record, so it's hard to say their peripheral stats will remain exactly the same year-to-year. Both should experience some growth. My personal belief, shared by some others, is that Porcello will show an increased strikeout rate this year. He showed his secondary pitches are good for swings-and-misses, but he didn't use them all that often in 2009 because he was said to be limiting his pitch count. In Game 163 -- with no reason to hold back anything -- he struck out eight. Many hope that is the true Porcello.
Wishful thinking, to some extent. But he's clearly a good young pitcher who should continue to improve.
That doesn't mean a step back isn't possible in 2010. He did throw 50 more innings than his previous season, which was played at Advanced-A, rather a step down from the MLB. That could have lingering effects and cause a "sophomore slump."
Scherzer, meanwhile, was traded because the Diamondbacks were not certain his mechanics can stand up to full season after full season after full season. He threw 61 more professional innings in 2009 than he did in 2008 -- and he spent half of that season in Triple-A. He, too, could see lingering effects.
Or both players could be healthy and continue to show growth in their games. That, obviously, is the hope around these parts. But it's only a hope at this point.
In any case, both players should "wow" Tigers fans for years to come. Just don't be surprised if Scherzer has the better season in 2010.