Entering spring training in 2013, many pundits and prognosticators thought that Rick Porcello was as good as gone. It seemed plausible, if not likely, that the Tigers would trade one of their six starting pitchers for help in other areas, inserting Drew Smyly into the last spot in the rotation. Porcello seemed to be the odd man out on many lists, and word was that he was being shopped, or at least the club was willing to listen to offers.
Apparently, Dave Dombrowski didn't receive the right offer for Porcello, who had a very strong spring and claimed the fifth and final spot in the rotation while Smyly was moved to the bullpen, where he also thrived. The plan worked like a charm, as the club boasted the best rotation in the game, and Porcello continued his incremental improvement, posting record of 13- 8 with an ERA of 4.43 and an FIP of 3.57.
Some will be quick to point out that, if not for two games against the Los Angeles Angels of Annaheim- games that featured about 100 fourteen hop grounders past the gloves of Tiger infielders outfitted with concrete boots- Porcello would have had an ERA of 3.61, which is very close to his FIP.
Blame bad luck, blame poor infield defesnse, or blame the weather, it seems there is something to blame every year as Kid Rick's ERA consistently under performs his Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP), year after year. You won't hear Porcello blaming anyone, though. When something keeps happening, you tend to rule out coincidence and luck.
Porcello may not be the star that he was projected to be when the Tigers went well over Bud Selig's slot recommendation and selected him out of Seton Hall Prep High School in the first round of the 2007 draft, but he has been a serviceable, durable starting pitcher for Detroit, posting a record of 61- 50, notching double digit wins every season he has been in the major leagues. If anything, Porcello teased us with his best season as a rookie and hasn't quite lived up to the expectations since. On the plus side, his ERA- and his FIP, have gotten incrementally better each of the last three seasons.
Porcello earned the reputation as a ground ball pitcher, and that rep is well deserved. His 55.5% GB percentage ranked second in the league behind Justin Masterson. When he did give up fly balls, he ranked among the highest in the league in HR/ Fly ball ratio.
Overall, Porcello ranked 20th in the league in WAR and 17th in FIP. In a league with 15 teams, that would make him a solid No 2 starter, yet we know that's not realistic. He's not likely to limit actual run prevention to his FIP. The reality with Porcello, a sinker ball pitcher, is that he leaves too many pitches out over the plate that are hit hard, especially by left handed batters. Pitch f/x shows that he gives up the highest Avg when throwing the two seamer.
And there is the secret to Porcello's success. While he allowed a slash line of .234 .264 .337 with a wOBA of .265 to right handed hitters, his line against lefties was .299 .359 .449 with a wOBA of .353. If he could put a significant dent in that gap, he'd be a solid mid rotation starter.
In the big picture, for the Tigers to match the effectiveness of their 2013 starting rotation- admittedly a tall order as dominating as they were- it's too much to expect Drew Smyly to match the performance that Doug Fister gave them last season, especially in terms of his 200 plus inning work load. But Porcello is within striking distance of being able to do just that. And I'm the guy who argues that Fister has been one of the top ten starters in the AL for the past three seasons.
Here's how it works: The two pitchers are very similar in many respects. They ranked second and third in the league in GB%, and both were among the league leaders in BB/9 ratio. Neither is what you'd call a high strikeout pitcher, and Rick actually improved his K rate last year from 5.22 to 7.49 K/9, a bit better than Fisters K rate.
In terms of work load, Porcello made 29 starts and threw 177 innings, averaging 6.1 innings per start, while Fister started 32 games and logged 208 innings for 6.5 innings per start. With the same number of starts, he'd have 195 innings.
Fister was better against left handed batters, allowing a wOBA of .304. Fister also critically had one of the best HR ratios in the league, trailing only Anibal Sanchez in that department. Porcello kept good company, allowing 18 home runs, the same number as Max Scherzer and one fewer than Justin Verlander.
Just some marginal improvement from Porcello, aided by some better infield defense, Rick replaces Doug... Drew replaces Rick, nobody gets hurt, and voila- Tiger fans might just
forget all about get over the Doug Fister trade.
Odd numbers: Porcello ranked fourth in the league among qualified starters in wOBA vs right handers, but 45th against left handed hitters. HIs splits are so obvious that opponents sent 386 left handers and 350 right handers up to face him. Considering about 70% of the league's batters are right handed, that's quite an adjustment by opposing managers.
Keys to Success: Any equation where Porcello shows significant improvement has him performing better against left handed hitters. Cutting down on the number of home runs allowed would also help.
2014 Outlook: Porcello moves up a notch and will be the fourth starter in the Tiger rotation, replacing Doug Fister. Barring any injuries, he should get another 3 to 5 starts and increase his inning load to near 200 IP. If all goes well, he'll be in the playoff rotation.