Begin with the principle that spring-training stats are meaningless. Use that as your rule of thumb and far more often than not, you’ll end up in the right. Player X mashes a dozen dingers before the end of camp. It’s probably meaningless. Pitcher Y finishes with an unheard-of strikeout-to-walk ratio. It’s probably meaningless. Team Z ends up with a really good or really bad record. It’s probably meaningless. We know this. If you’re reading FanGraphs, you know this. People try to tease meaning out of spring-training statistics, but the meaning is almost impossible to find.
Still, we talk about spring-training statistics, mostly because they’re our first new statistics after months of desolation. By and large we can’t help ourselves, and we trick ourselves into believing we’re better than we are at separating signal from noise. We look for numbers that seem to be out of character. We consider other factors that might give numbers more substance. I turn your attention now to Rick Porcello.
Porcello, this spring, has thrown 13 innings. Porcello, this spring, has generated 14 strikeouts, to go with zero walks. Porcello’s competing for the fifth slot in the Tigers’ rotation, with Drew Smyly, who is also good. Porcello has been dazzling through four appearances. At least, his numbers dazzle.
And they’re out of character. In his major-league career, Porcello has generated 5 strikeouts per nine innings. Over all previous spring trainings, Porcello generated 4.7 strikeouts per nine innings, covering nearly 90 innings. In the past, Porcello hasn’t been a strikeout pitcher, and now he’s struck out 14 of the 49 guys he’s faced. That’s highly unusual, for him, and that’s the sort of thing that makes many of us wonder. Is this one of those numbers with actual meaning, or are we simply being tricked?
It’s of interest that, in the past, Porcello’s spring strikeouts have mirrored his season strikeouts. It’s of interest that Porcello is in a job competition and is also the subject of trade rumors, because it means Porcello might be a little ahead of your average pitcher in the middle of March. It’s of interest that Porcello is only 24, and of course, just because it’s spring training doesn’t mean it’s not baseball. Every spring plate appearance is a plate appearance in which the pitcher wants to get the hitter out, and the hitter wants to get on base safely. It wouldn’t be hard to believe Porcello might be in line for a strikeout-rate uptick.
So I thought it would be a good idea to review Rick Porcello’s 14 spring strikeouts to date. Who has he been striking out? Has he been controlling big-league competition, or has he been eating up minor leaguers? Following, a list, featuring a couple players twice:
- Freddie Freeman
- Dan Uggla
- Dan Uggla
- Jordan Schafer
- Fernando Martinez
- Carlos Pena
- Justin Maxwell
- Matt Dominguez
- Carlos Pena
- Chris Carter
- Steve Lombardozzi
- Chad Tracy
- Corey Brown
- Bryce Harper
Of those players, all but one got significant big-league playing time in 2012, so it’s not like Porcello has been striking out nobodies. You recognize those names, and there are good players on that list. I should point out that nine of the strikeouts have been swinging, and five of the strikeouts have been called.
But that list also has a lot of strikeout-prone hitters on it. On average, last season, these players struck out in 24.3% of their plate appearances. On average, throughout the league, non-pitchers struck out in 19.2% of their plate appearances. Of course, if you isolate only those players who a pitcher struck out, you’re going to get a higher-than-average strikeout rate, because you’re selecting for strikeouts.
Lombardozzi, Tracy, Dominguez, and Harper posted the four lowest strikeout rates last year in the group. All four of their strikeouts against Porcello have been called. The average 2012 strikeout rate for the players who have struck out swinging against Porcello was 27.5%. Maxwell had the highest strikeout rate in the group, and he happened to strike out looking against Porcello on March 4.
So Porcello has generated strikeouts, but he’s generated strikeouts against strikeout-prone hitters. When he’s struck out non-strikeout-prone hitters, he hasn’t made them miss — he’s just messed with their timing, which seems less sustainable. Surprise! Examination reveals Porcello’s spring strikeout rate to be less impressive than it seems on the surface.
But for the record, in a dozen regular-season matchups, Porcello has struck out Pena just twice. He’s struck out Josh Hamilton once in 16 plate appearances. He hasn’t struck out Miguel Olivo in eight plate appearances, and he’s struck out Mark Reynolds three times in 11 plate appearances. There’s a difference between a player being strikeout-prone and actually striking out, and are there any reasons to believe Porcello has increased his strikeout ability, numbers aside?
There’s one that I can identify: in camp, Porcello has been working hard on his curveball, and he’s nearly abandoned his slider. Porcello’s slider hasn’t been a good pitch for him, and at the moment he’s trying to hone one breaking ball instead of bouncing between two of them. You can read a little about this here, and below, Rick Porcello’s curveball makings hitters look like fools:
For his career, Porcello has thrown his slider about 15% of the time, and he’s thrown his curve about 4% of the time. A change in pitch mix could conceivably lead to a change in pitch results. Those curveballs shown above are quality curveballs, although we selected for curveballs that led to strikeouts.
So there’s something going on, in that there isn’t nothing going on. What remains to be seen is whether Porcello folds in the slider later, or if he essentially replaces the slider with the curve. We don’t know what his pitch mix is going to look like in 2013, so we don’t know whether to expect a different mix to generate different results.
And Porcello has thrown 13 spring innings. Last August, Porcello had a stretch of 14 strikeouts in 14 regular-season innings. In April 2011, he had a stretch of 13 strikeouts in 11.2 regular-season innings. In one start in July 2010, he struck out eight Rays. This isn’t unprecedented for Porcello, and his track record is that of a low-strikeout pitcher. An extended big-league track record is a hell of a lot more meaningful than 13 innings in one spring training.
But I think we can compromise, here: on one hand, we can assume that Porcello isn’t up to anything, but on the other, we can continue to monitor his progress to see if this might sustain to any extent. That way there’s no harm done. We’ve always wondered whether Rick Porcello could generate more strikeouts in the major leagues, and there’s nothing wrong with wondering, provided it’s done responsibly. Porcello, probably, won’t post a much higher strikeout rate in 2013, but we don’t know that for absolute sure.
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