In June 2007 the Detroit Tigers selected right-hander Rick Porcello in the first round of the MLB Draft. After making 180 starts over the course of six seasons with the Tigers, Porcello was sent to Boston for outfielder Yoenis Cespedes in December 2014. Cespedes played just 102 games the next season with the Tigers before being traded to the New York Mets at the 2015 Trade Deadline. In return for the slugger, the Tigers received two young starters, one of whom will take the mound tonight against Porcello.
All three of the Red Sox, Mets, and Tigers are fairly happy with the outcome of this web of trades. Porcello has been exceptional this season (more on that to follow) and Cespedes has enjoyed another outstanding season with the Mets. However, it is hard to imagine either team being more excited than the Tigers. In a year when the Detroit starting rotation has experienced many disappointments and setbacks, young Michael Fulmer has been absolutely amazing. Fulmer enters Thursday's contest leading the American League in ERA, ranking second in WHIP and seventh in FIP among all qualified starters.
There have been many impressive starts by Fulmer this season, but his last time out was his best yet. Fulmer threw his first complete game and his first strikeout against the Rangers, giving up just four hits while striking out nine and walking no one. During the start, Fulmer recorded just a 73.7 percent contact rate, which was below his season average and his best mark since before the All-Star Break. Fulmer has a tough task in the Boston offense, but he has shown he is up for the task.
Who will come out on top in a matchup of two of the AL's best starters?
Boston Red Sox (67-53) at Detroit Tigers (64-57)
Time/Place: 7:10pm ET, Comerica Park
SB Nation blog: Over the Monster
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching matchup: RHP Rick Porcello (16-3, 3.30 ERA) vs. RHP Michael Fulmer (10-3, 2.25 ERA)
Wait, what? Yes, this is the same Rick Porcello who was pitching in Detroit a mere two seasons ago, although I forgive you if the numbers cause you to second-guess that statement. To many fans, Porcello will always been seen as "that other guy," which can happen when the rest of the rotation features stars like Justin Verlander, David Price, Max Scherzer, Anibal Sanchez (it really was not that long ago...), and Doug Fister. Apparently the change in scenery was just what he needed.
While wins are definitely not the best way to measure a pitcher's value, the first thing to jump off of the page is Porcello's 16-3 record. With the Tigers he never fared any better than 13-8, and he did have a few seasons with a pretty good offense behind him. Porcello's last season in Detroit was his best to that point, but by most measures he is pitching even better in 2016. He is currently on pace to set a career-best in ERA, strikeout percentage, walk percentage, and WHIP.
Porcello's sharp improvement has been a little puzzling, considering that his velocity, hard contact rate, and pitch selection have remained more or less the same. Perhaps some of his success is to due to a .269 BABIP, a figure that is much lower than his .308 career average. Still, Porcello is not simply benefiting from a fluky start or two. Over the last calendar year he owns a 3.26 ERA, 3.50 FIP, 21.3 percent strikeout rate, and 4.2 percent walk rate.
Hitter to fear: Dustin Pedroia (.333/.333/1.333 in 3 plate appearances)
Hitter to fail: David Ortiz (.000/.000/.000 in 3 plate appearances)
Fulmer faced the Red Sox less than a month ago at Fenway Park, pitching 7 2/3 innings while giving up three runs, including solo shots to Dustin Pedroia and Xander Bogaerts. Fulmer scattered seven hits in the outing and struck out five without surrendering any walks. Porcello has faced his former team just once, making a solid start in July 2015. He went seven innings while giving up only five hits and one run in an 11-inning affair.
The Porcello the Tigers will face on Thursday is much different than the Porcello they used to see take the mound every fifth day. He still does a great job at keeping the ball on the ground, but he is somehow striking out over 20 percent of the batters he faces. The Tigers offense has been asleep for most of the last two weeks and facing Porcello does not seem like the way to wake it up. Fortunately, Detroit will start one of the few pitchers who has been even better than Porcello this season. It is never easy to bet against Fulmer, especially after such a dominant performance his last time out.
The pitcher's duel lives up to the hype, and the Tigers make it two in a row.