You're familiar with Cliff Lee's success, but do you know about Lee's failings?
In 2003, the then 23-year-old Cliff Lee was the talk of the town. Baseball America ranked him the No. 3 prospect in the Indians' organization and No. 30 overall in baseball. After running roughshod over this minor league opponents, he got the talk to Cleveland and put up a 3.61 ERA with a 1.17 WHIP in 11 games started.
Another young prospect arrived!
Or did he? His Fielding Independent Pitching stat told another story: 4.35. In 2004, it took a step back to 4.97, and his ERA ballooned to 5.43. It turns out he was pitching over his head in 2003 and that kind of thing has a way of catching up to you.
In 2005, his second full season in the league, he made progress. He walked fewer, he kept the ball in the park. His ERA and FIP matched at 3.79. The corner appeared turned.
It wasn't. His strikeout rate continued to drop, all the way to just 5.79 per nine innings -- a career low -- while both his ERA and FIP increased to the mid-to-high 4s.
He was winning games, but look and and you realize the once-touted prospect was now nothing more than an average starter. Not that there's anything wrong with being average. It's just that everyone believed he had so much more potential.
So midway through the 2007 season, during which he continued to struggle, the Indians made the decision. He had to go back to the minors and fix things.
You know the story after that. He fixed problems, turned his changeup and curveball in into plus pitches and got on track. When he got back to the league, he was a pitcher you did not want to see on the mound against you. In 2008, he started the All-Star Game, won 22 games, finished the season with an ERA of 2.54 and won the Cy Young Award.
He's been incredible ever since.
By now, you've guessed why I recount that story. Looking at Rick Porcello, I see potential being wasted. A high draft pick, a guy hyped as having top-of-the-rotation ability. An incredible value during his six years of indentured servitude. If only he elevates his game beyond the feeble state it currently resides in.
It's time to give Porcello the training time in the minors that he should have had in 2009 when his struggles first appeared, or he should have had more of in 2010. The Tigers were in division-title races and sacrificed his development for the good of the team. They're no longer in the hunt.
Porcello should finish the season in Toledo, and begin 2011 there if need be. That's the only way he'll turn into the player you imagine him becoming.
We're now 49 games into the career of Rick Porcello, and he's still just a 21-year-old. That leads many people to say he's an occasionally outmatched player who would be in his junior year of college had he chosen that route. If he was a more traditional player, maybe you expect to find him pitching in the Class A Florida State League right now. Or maybe you look at his numbers this year and think it's a "sophomore slump" as opposing teams have adjusted to him while we wait for him to adjust back to them. Give him the time to mature and you'll be paid back in spades by a young, cost-controlled player.
And maybe he will. The talent that had so many scouts salivating and teams wishing they could afford him is still there. Untapped.
Before we get too far, there's a few important pieces of information in the Porcello story we're missing when we just spout phrases and don't get behind the numbers.
His actual outcomes were far better than his expected outcomes in 2009. You can reject the notion all you want, but there are certain stats that are useful for predicting the future for a player. Porcello's weren't pretty during his rookie year. He struck out a paltry 4.69 per nine innings. Every strikeout pitcher isn't an ace, and every ace doesn't have to strike out eight or nine batters per nine innings. But it's a pretty good start. He had a low batting average for balls in play of .281. Ground balls have a way of finding holes in the infield, so that was remarkable. He stranded 75 percent of baserunners, due mainly to the reason his grounders were finding gloves. About 30 percent of at bats ended in groundouts.
When you add it all up, his actual ERA was a decent 3.96. However the more predictive Fielding Independent Pitching stat showed it at 4.77. The oft-repeated storyline said Porcello shelved his breaking pitches at the behest of the team, and was forced to pitch to contact to go deeper into games. This should have put up a red flag that his development was being arrested, but instead people took the opposite view. Just because he wasn't a strikeout pitcher didn't mean he couldn't become one. Many expected him to take a step forward, that the pitches would just magically be there when he was allowed to take them out of the bag.
They weren't, and 2010 shows he stepped backwards.
Turns out that FIP thing was right. Suddenly those grounders -- which came less frequently as his sinker didn't sink but instead hung up for nice healthy line drives -- were finding holes. Some of that is luck, some of that is an inferior defense. He's standing at a BABIP of .329. Lacking the double plays he was getting last year, he's stranding runners at just a 62 percent rate. Not only has he not figured out how to strike batters out, but he's doing less of it than ever at a professional low of 4.50 per nine innings.
So again, you look at ERA to tell you what happened and FIP to tell you what to expect. His ERA of 5.91 is ugly, much worse than his 4.82 FIP. Yet is that what we should be content with? A career 4.79 pitcher; or 4.54 if you believe he's been unlucky with his home runs?
That's not what I want to see. He still isn't strikeout out players, and his FIP has been remarkably consistent in the bottom-of-the-rotation starter territory.
Unless something big changes for young Mr. Porcello, I fear the player so many people imagine him becoming is nothing more than wishful thinking. He isn't growing.
Why is that?
Porcello shouldn't have been in the major leagues during just his second year of professional ball. He handled it well, looked like Cy Young himself had returned to the game in just his second month in the league. Then all the cracks in the wall started to show through. The Tigers felt they were a playoff team with few options in the minor leagues, so they let him play through. Eventually things clicked again and he was the team's second-best pitcher for the final two months of the season. While that was good for the Tigers' playoff chances in 2009, it was bad for Porcello's career.
This year, he came in with expectations that an older, more mature player would step forward. Fans felt like he was a legitimate No. 2. He wasn't, and isn't. He spent a few weeks in the minor leagues to work on it, and came back too quickly to a Tigers team in a division race. The results were just as inconsistent and shaky as when he went there.
The Tigers just are not giving him time to properly develop away from big league pressures and big league hitters. His breaking pitches are remarkably ineffective. Further, he shelved his curveball for a slider. That is unfortunate, because the occasional curveball he tossed during his rookie campaign appeared to be a real thing of beauty. To me, it looked like the kind of pitch that could help take him to the next level. Batters missed it 10 percent of the time and put it in play just 12. Of course, it was all over the place, but the potential was there.
Fangraphs gives a look into the value of the pitches. His fastball has a negative value this year; it was positive last. His slider has quite a negative value. His hardly-used curveball has a negative value. His changeup has a negative value. If Porcello throws something, odds are not in his favor.
Which leads me back to my point. Pitching in the MLB before he's fully formed is detrimental to the success you expect to see him have in the Old English D. You think that is just magically going to fix itself? Keep pitching in the major leagues and magically one day everything will click into place? He needs to make sure his sinker has weight, his changeup effectively keeps batters on edge and his breaking pitch can consistently get him swings and misses. Right now, consistency is not a word you would use to describe him.
There's nothing wrong with allowing Porcello more time to develop in Toledo. It's not an insult to him. It's no different than what Lee did. Or what Roy Halladay did. Or what Zack Greinke did. Or any other number of young pitchers who came up just a bit too soon and needed to go back to the minor leagues to fully put things together.
Bottom line: The Tigers own the rights to Porcello for
four five more seasons. It's best for both them and Porcello if he gets the best chance to become the player we all believe he can be. To do that, they must send him to the minor leagues for more than a handful of games.