One of the consistent gripes among the Tigers fanbase over the past few seasons has been Rick Porcello's lack of a "strikeout pitch." Like Jeremy Bonderman's changeup or Justin Verlander's efficiency, Porcello's inability to rack up strikeouts like the aces in the rotation wore thin on many a Tigers supporter. Porcello posted the best strikeout rate of his career in 2013, but still did not possess that "here it comes, good luck hitting it" pitch that Verlander or Max Scherzer have.
This season, things might be different. It's early -- a caveat that can be applied to this entire post -- but Rick Porcello's fastball may have become his "out" pitch.
After Thursday's game against the Houston Astros, Porcello has 27 strikeouts in 38 2/3 innings this season. His strikeout rate has dipped from the 7.2 per nine innings he put away in 2013, but his swinging strike rate has improved slightly compared to last season. He has pounded the strike zone from the get-go -- his first pitch strike percentage is the second-highest of his career -- and is still putting hitters away at a higher rate than any season prior to '13.
The most interesting part of this whole equation is how Porcello is striking hitters out. Of the 27 strikeouts Porcello has accrued this year, 17 have come on fastballs (four and two-seam combined). This percentage is far above any other season in his career. Meanwhile, his fastball is generating fewer swings and misses than in either of the past two seasons. This has resulted in the lowest ratio of strikeouts swinging to strikeouts looking of his career. Of his 27 strikeouts through six starts, 10 have been looking. This ratio ranks as the 14th lowest in the American League, meaning Porcello has been one of the best pitchers in the AL at catching hitters looking for strike three.
Which brings us back to the fastball. Porcello has used a healthy percentage of fastballs in two strike counts throughout his career. However, he has shown an improved ability to locate the fastball on the edge of the strike zone -- the inside corner against left-handers, in particular -- to freeze hitters who may be looking for something slower.
All but one of the hitters that Porcello has struck out looking this season went down on a fastball. Even beyond the strikeouts, Porcello's fastball has been a more effective pitch. Opposing batters hit .303 off his two-seam fastball in 2013 and have hit .302 off the two-seamer in his career. This season, Porcello is holding the opposition to a .237 batting average off the two-seamer.
Part of Porcello's oft-cited improvement against left-handed hitters has been due to his fastball. While lefties are still hitting .303 off his two-seamer, this is a massive improvement from last season's .369 average or the .342 figure for his career. Meanwhile, right-handed batters are hitting a minuscule .194 off Porcello's two-seamer. For reference, righties are hitting .239 off Max Scherzer's fastball this season.
It's nearly impossible to pick out one specific reason why Rick Porcello is off to a career-best start in 2014, but the aforementioned improvement in his fastball is one of several contributing factors. With a 5-1 record and 3.49 ERA in his first seven starts, Porcello's traditional numbers are finally catching up to the advanced metrics that have predicted his breakout every March for the last half decade. Will it continue? If Porcello continues to put hitters away -- looking or otherwise -- and stay efficient, then 2014 may finally be his season to shine.