The Underappreciated and Evolving Rick Porcello

As of this writing, the Detroit Tigers are the only team in the AL Central with a record above .500. They rank sixth in all of baseball in both runs scored per game and runs allowed per game. While their offense ranks in the top 10 in WAR, their pitching is what is really shining — ranking second in all baseball just behind the Red Sox. The claim that the Tigers have good pitching is not an original one, certainly. They have a pair of Cy Young award winners in Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer, as well as Anibal Sanchez, who would be the ace of a lot of teams.

Other members of the rotation pique certain interests as well. Drew Smyly is getting another shot at starting, and Robbie Ray has been more than adequate while filling in for an injured Sanchez. Applying a sort of family dynamic to the team — Verlander, Scherzer, and Sanchez are the older kids that are just kind of doing their own thing while Smyly and Ray are the little ones that garner all the attention. This leaves Rick Porcello, the Jan Brady of the Detroit Tigers.

Porcello isn’t a dominant strikeout artist. He doesn’t have amazing “stuff” that gets featured via GIFs. Though he’s only 25 years old, he isn’t seen as part of an exciting new crop of pitchers. He isn’t flamboyant, he doesn’t say crazy things to the press. On the surface, Rick Porcello is boring.

But do you know what else Rick Porcello is? A top-25 starting pitcher. Since 2012, he’s been the 24th best pitcher by WAR and ranks 25th so far this season. He doesn’t walk many, he keeps the ball on the ground and in the ballpark. He may not have the dazzle of a Jose Fernandez (RIP), but he’s a vey effective pitcher in his own right. And he may be getting more effective.

Porcello was always one of those guys who never quite lived up to his peripherals. This year, at least up to this point, that has changed. Where as in the past his ERA- and his FIP- had been around 20 points different, this season they are exactly equal at 78. While it’s too early to say this is going to stick, there are some indicators that Porcello might step up from under-achiever to as-expected-achiever. We really need a better word for that.

The first thing that should be brought up is the significant change in Porcello’s BABIP this season. Being a groundball pitcher, Porcello is a guy who is going to allow some balls in play, so how those balls fall and where they go mean something. Porcello has had a BABIP over .300 every season he’s been in the majors. Some of that has to do with randomness, but it has to do with defense, too. How much is unclear, but a groundball pitcher isn’t being done any favors by having some of the worst defense in the league behind him. The Tigers ranked within the 10 worst defenses of 2013 and 2012, and had the 12th worst defense in 2011. Like I said, no favors.

But what’s this? Are the Tigers putting their defensive woes behind them? As of now, they actually have a positive defensive rating, their first time in the black since 2010. It’s a slim number right now, but it’s still progress. Prince Fielder is gone, Miguel Cabrera is back at first, and Ian Kinsler has been installed at second. Even Nick Castellanos is managing to be a teeny bit above league average at the hot corner. The Tigers defense isn’t amazing, but it seems like, at least right now, they may no longer be atrocious.

Besides a bolstered infield to back him up, Porcello is seeing another change — his performance against lefties. So far in 2013, Porcello is holding lefties to a .311 wOBA, which is good enough for 60th among qualified starters. That’s not terrible, but it’s not terribly good either. But since 2011 he allowed lefties a .365 wOBA which was good enough for 122nd out of the 130 qualified starters over that stretch. That’s just kind of plain terrible.

The not-so-secret weapon for right-handed pitchers when facing lefties is a serviceable changeup — the slight arm-side motion helping them to expand the strike zone to the other side of the plate. So if Rick Porcello is performing better against left-handers (he is) and he hasn’t added any weird new pitches to his repetiore (he hasn’t), then it’s reasonable to think his changeup might have become a more effective pitch, yes?

Rick Porcello Changeup

Contact% Z-Contact% K% SwStr% GB% FB% wOBA Value
2012 75.50% 85.60% 13.60% 12.80% 43.90% 37.80% 0.304 0.4
2013 74.30% 86.00% 18.50% 14.00% 41.80% 36.70% 0.268 2.9
2014 78.30% 89.30% 13.60% 12.40% 57.90% 21.10% 0.139 4.0

YES! It has, in fact. Though, it improved in some odd ways. He’s not striking out more batters with it, he’s not getting more whiffs with it. More batters are getting their bats on Porcello’s changeup, but it doesn’t seem to matter somehow. His groundball rate on changeups is going up, the flyball rate is going down. There are no major changes in location or velocity to be found, but something is different, and it’s helping him finally neutralize lefties.

Rick Porcello was a good pitcher, and he’s on pace to have his best season yet. This won’t push him over the line to the realm of great pitcher, but he’ll still be a more-good pitcher, which is still something. We can swoon over Verlander’s durability, we can bat our eyes at Scherzer’s strikeouts, and we can all smirk at how we know Anibal Sanchez is probably underrated. Rick Porcello will still be there being his boring, groundball-throwing self. He’s on a better than three-win clip, and he’s the fourth best starter on his staff. That’s just some bad luck in terms of public visibility. It’s incredibly good luck in terms of winning championships.

David G. Temple is the Managing Editor of TechGraphs and a contributor to FanGraphs, NotGraphs and The Hardball Times. He hosts the award-eligible podcast Stealing Home. Dayn Perry once called him a "Bible Made of Lasers." Follow him on Twitter @davidgtemple.

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Older but not fatter yet
9 years ago

Maybe he has more late break on the changeup, or more break on it altogether. Or maybe its small sample in 2014 GB results.

Or maybe I don’t know what I am talking about.