For the last five years, Rick Porcello has been identified by local and national pundits alike as a "breakout candidate." He impressed in his rookie year in 2009, allowing a 3.96 ERA in 170 2/3 innings without ever setting foot in Double A ball. After a large step back in 2010, the breakout predictions began. But year after year, Porcello only showed small improvements. Sure, his ERA and FIP got better every year, but the big jump never came.
A sharp spike in his strikeout rate in 2013 resulted in a 3.52 FIP and 3.2 fWAR, Porcello's best marks yet. But his ERA -- largely inflated by a disastrous outing against the Los Angeles Angels -- still remained elevated at 4.32. Still, the signs were there. He was 9-2 with a 3.47 ERA after July 1st. He tossed his first complete game in September against the Chicago White Sox. He was more efficient, averaging over six innings per start for the first time in his career. Would these improvements lead to the true "breakout season" Tigers fans have been waiting for?
The answer? A resounding 'yes.'
Porcello got off to a somewhat shaky start in 2014, alternating good and bad outings throughout the month of April. He allowed two runs in 13 2/3 innings at home that month -- including a demon-exorcising, seven inning effort against the Angels -- but gave up nine runs in 11 1/3 road innings.
Things calmed down in May as Porcello won four consecutive starts to begin the month. He allowed just six runs in 27 2/3 innings during that stretch, lowering his season ERA to 2.91. The breakout season was underway.
Porcello was battered in his next start, allowing eight runs (seven earned) on 12 hits in 5 1/3 innings against the Texas Rangers. While the outing wasn't as short as his meltdown in Anaheim last year, the outing was eerily reminiscent of previous blow-ups Porcello has had. Unlike his teammates, Porcello doesn't have the stuff to get away with mistakes, and tends to get hit harder on off days than the other Tigers' starters.
Luckily for the Tigers, these outings have become the exception rather than the rule. Porcello allowed seven runs on two occasions in 2014 and had another four starts with five earned runs, but kept the Tigers in the game far more often. Porcello had 11 starts with zero or one run allowed, and another seven with two runs allowed.
If there is one number that fully encapsulates the growth that Porcello showed in 2014, it is three. Porcello tossed a trio of shutouts this season, which led the American League. Two of them came in back-to-back outings in June and July. Combined with another scoreless outing prior to the first shutout, Porcello had a stretch of 25 scoreless innings, by far the longest of his career. He became the first Tiger to throw back-to-back shutouts since Jack Morris, who tossed three in a row in July of 1986.
For years, Porcello struggled against left-handed hitters. He allowed a .358 on-base percentage to lefties last season, with a 1.97 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 353 plate appearances. Thanks to a 25 percent decrease in his walk rate, Porcello held lefties to a .315 on-base percentage in 441 plate appearances in 2014.
If not for a slight blemish on his record -- he was 0-2 with a 6.20 ERA and 4.19 FIP in September -- Porcello would have walked away with an 'A.' He posted career bests in ERA, WHIP, innings pitched, and walk rate, and narrowly missed out on besting last season's career marks in strikeout-to-walk ratio, FIP, and WAR. He threw three of the rotation's four shutouts, and was the most reliable starter for stretches of the season. The signs may have been there for a breakout season, but seeing Porcello go out and take the next step was gratifying as a fan. The 2015 season will go a long way in determining whether the Tigers choose to hang onto him, but another season like 2014 may see his price skyrocket even further.