An Examination of Rick Porcello’s Strikeouts

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:

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:

PorcelloCU2.gif.opt

PorcelloCU1.gif.opt

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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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.


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bada bing
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bada bing
3 years 4 months ago

I’m surprised that you didn’t link this article from last year:

http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/index.php/stop-throwing-that-rick-porcellos-slider/

It appears that if he would stop throwing his slider entirely he can produce encouraging results. And, if this curveball does end up being a superior pitch to his slider (I would hope so, his slider is terrible), then an increased K rate seems completely plausible.

MLB Rainmaker
Member
Member
MLB Rainmaker
3 years 4 months ago

Fantastic article. It may all be BS, but considering Porcello will be off the radar for most leagues, he could be a pretty solid late draft pick.

Now I’m feeling bad about trading him in my dynasty league….

Dan Rozenson
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Dan Rozenson
3 years 4 months ago

I don’t have Tom Tango’s Book on me, but I recall the authors saying that even with something like 25 at-bats against a pitcher, you’d have a much better idea of a batter’s future performance against that pitcher based on his career averages. In other words, small sample sizes are extremely unreliable.

Dirck
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Dirck
3 years 4 months ago

The Tigers seem to instill a pitch-to-contact philosophy in their young pitchers .I recall the young Verlander before he became VERLANDER being questioned because he didn;t get many strikeouts . I will try to locate and link an aricle .

Tak
Member
Tak
3 years 4 months ago

I’m not sure what you are talking about… If there was a consistent philosophy regarding Detroit pitchers, it is that they love power arms. Power arms are generally taught to rack up K’s.

Dirck
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Dirck
3 years 4 months ago

http://www.baseballprospectus.com/article.php?articleid=5199 Here is one of the articles about Verlander’s lack of strikeouts from 2006 that i mentioned above . Verlander’s strikeouts were fairly low his first three years ( but not as low as Porcello’s ) . He didn’t really become a big strikeout pitcher until his 4 year in the majors ,his age 26 season . Porcello is near that point now ,could we see a repeat /

Jon Williams
Guest
3 years 4 months ago

Probably not a complete coincidence that Porcello’s K9 and Swinging Strike Rate have been making small gains the last couple of years.

Chicago Mark
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Chicago Mark
3 years 4 months ago

Excellent stuff Jeff. And thanks for the info Dirck. Something to watch from here on out.

Chicago Mark
Guest
Chicago Mark
3 years 4 months ago

Forgot to ask. We saw a fastball velo increase of about 1.5 mph last year. What are we seeing this year?

Travis L
Member
Member
Travis L
3 years 4 months ago

His profile page:
http://www.fangraphs.com/statss.aspx?playerid=2717&position=P

Exclude his rookie year because he was a very different pitcher in terms of pitch selection, walk rates, etc. Since then, he’s ticked his strikeout rate up (12%, 13.3%, 13.7%) with a pretty consistent walk rate (5.4%, 5.9%, 5.6%). He’s clearly not trading more Ks for more BBs.

His GB% has trended 50.3%, 51.4%, 53.2%. League average I think is usually 44%.

His FIP has dropped each of the years (4.31, 4.06, 3.91).

But the real story is his SwStr%. 5.9, 6.3, 7.5%. (~8% is league average, I think)

Last year he got hammered with bad luck. Every bad luck indicator was unfavorable to him — .344 BABIP, 49% LOB%, 11.5% HR/FB. The first two you can partially blame on the tigers infield defense, which should improve a little this year with Infante.

I think he took a large step forward last year, but nobody noticed because he was unlucky.

Word comes from spring training that he’s dropping his slider (-18 runs above average, that’s really really awful) for his curveball (1.2 runs above average). He started to rely less on his slider last year (threw it 16% of the time instead of 20%+ the previous years), relied more on his curve and change (curve: 2% to 3.2%, change 11.4% to 13.6%). And had better results (excluding bad ball in play luck). And now he’s going to do more of what made him better last year.

Who knows what will happen, but I put my guess on the fact that Porcello wil be really good this year.

Travis L
Member
Member
Travis L
3 years 4 months ago

On a reread of this comment, I realize my “nobody noticed” statement was unnecessary (he did put up nearly 3 win season). To restate my point: I think Porcello will continue to improve, and with better luck / defense could be a fringy Cy Young candidate (mainstream acknowledgement).

Neil
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Neil
3 years 4 months ago

It’s the number change.

philosofool
Member
Member
philosofool
3 years 4 months ago

This article reminds me that I really want Fangraphs to start publishing swinging strikeout and looking strikeouts for batters and hitters. They’re available at Statcorner, but statcorner doesn’t have .csv downloads so that I can do analysis.

In fact, I hereby promise to do an extensive study of swinging and looking strike outs and submit it to community research if FG will, please, start publishing this data. I will write up standard deviations, year-to-year correlations, and see whether there are other metrics that predict one but not the other. If you oblige me, I will even do this in two parts, one for pitchers and one for hitters.

Jess
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Jess
3 years 4 months ago

“Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, and he still writes there about the Mariners.”

:(

Randy
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Randy
3 years 4 months ago

Swinging Strike % is available on fangraphs for pitchers.

Roto Wizard
Member
Roto Wizard
3 years 4 months ago

That’s a rate stat. He’s looking for K totals split between called and swinging.

philosofool
Guest
philosofool
3 years 4 months ago

Well, I don’t care if FG wants to publish Kl and Ks as a rate or a count, but swinging strike % is the number of times a batter increased the strike total in the count by swinging at the ball, i.e., swings and misses + foul balls in 0 and 1 strike counts. I want the outcomes that end plate appearances, not the intermediaries.

Givejonadollar
Guest
3 years 4 months ago

I think Porcello has star written all over him. I think he will have a lot of bright moments before it’s all said and done.

TiggerBounce
Guest
TiggerBounce
3 years 4 months ago

“Porcello, probably, won’t post a much higher strikeout rate in 2013, but we don’t know that for absolute sure.”

That conclusion seems peculiar to me. I can certainly understand saying that the small data set and quality of batters etc, makes drawing any conclusion suspect. But to say “probably won’t” seems a step too far, don’t you think?

In years past, his spring training SO/9 varied between 4 and 6, much like his regular seasons. This spring it’s at 9. And his BB/9 certainly isn’t suffering. No walks this spring.

About the slider, what if he brings it back? If he masters the pitch before bringing to the game (like he did with the curve) why would that necessarily be a bad thing?

C’mon Jeff, what’s a guy gotta do before you’re at least willing to give him the benefit of a “maybe” instead of a “probably won’t” ?

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