Rick Porcello: Potentially Actual Closer Material

Over much of the offseason, a lot was said about the Detroit Tigers heading into 2013 with Bruce Rondon slated to close. Rondon, 22, has a big fastball, and is a quality prospect. But it turns out there’s more to pitching than throwing really hard, and Rondon has limited experience in the upper minors and a demonstrated inability to throw strikes consistently, especially against left-handed hitters. Right now, in Tigers camp, Rondon is being given special instruction, and while there’s plenty of time in spring for him to right the ship, it’s looking less likely by the day that Rondon will close out of the gate. The Tigers want to go to the playoffs, see, and a shaky rookie closer isn’t going to help them if he’s sufficiently shaky.

Rumor has it the Tigers are exploring the current closer market. How important is a closer to the Tigers? On the one hand, closer Jose Valverde had some memorable meltdowns last October, nearly costing the Tigers their season. On the other hand, with Valverde, the Tigers won their division and advanced to the World Series before getting swept away by San Francisco. So Valverde didn’t bring everything down. But the Tigers want security — security in the person of not-Valverde, it turns out — and among the considered options, Rick Porcello makes for a curious one.

Porcello, obviously, would be an internal option, a decision made instead of swinging a trade. This all started on Tuesday. Jason Beck:

As questions from reporters go, Rick Porcello as a closer wasn’t the craziest idea that manager Jim Leyland has ever heard. Judging by his answer on Monday, it wasn’t even high up on the crazy list.

“I don’t know that that’s necessarily a wild thought,” Leyland answered.

That’s it. It’s hardly anything, but another way of saying “hardly anything” is “something”, and now we have the idea of Rick Porcello closing on our minds. Let’s discuss!

Would the Tigers do it?

No, probably not, not barring emergency. From earlier Wednesday:

That would be a somewhat radical switch. Contenders generally try not to make radical switches this close to the season. Porcello thinks of himself as a starter, he’s an effective starter, and he’s a starter who’s presently the subject of trade rumors, specifically because he can start. Additionally, if the Tigers are looking for an established, proven closer, you’d think they’d want someone with at least one career save. Porcello isn’t not an option, but right now, like Leyland said, it’s unlikely. Porcello might not be into it, and the Tigers might not be into it. Another team might prefer to trade for Porcello and make him its own.

Could Porcello do it?

This is guesswork — Porcello has never closed — but, yeah, probably. Point number one is that Porcello is an average or above-average starter. A lot of people think of Porcello as just being a guy who doesn’t generate many strikeouts, and strikeouts are important, but Porcello has a career 100 FIP- and a career 98 xFIP-. So that’s our starting spot, and as many of you should already know, pitchers tend to improve when they transition from starting to relieving. They throw harder, they put more effort into everything, and they can eliminate worse pitches. They don’t have to go through the other lineup multiple times. Probably, Porcello’s peripherals would become stronger were he to switch to relief.

It’s unlikely that Porcello would suddenly become a dominant closer, an elite closer, but he could be an effective one. One question is whether his velocity would get higher, since last year he gained about two ticks while still starting. Maybe, instead of gaining more oomph, he’d just sustain his new level. But he wouldn’t throw slower. As for platoon concerns, Porcello has faced 44% righties over his career. Last year, closers pitched with the platoon advantage 50% of the time, so Porcello could see slightly fewer lefties. That would, obviously, help him out, since he hasn’t established a reverse platoon split.

You know who isn’t unlike Rick Porcello? Orioles closer Jim Johnson, of whom the Orioles are quite fond. Johnson’s a groundball guy more than he’s a strikeout guy, and he was just an All-Star. Between 1999-2001, as a sinkerballing reliever for the Red Sox, Derek Lowe struck out 19.4% of batters, with a 71 FIP-. Between 2002-2004, as a sinkerballing starter for the Red Sox, Lowe struck out 13.3% of batters, with an 87 FIP-. As a Reds reliever in 2002, Danny Graves generated 13.7% strikeouts. As a Reds starter in 2003, Graves generated 7.7% strikeouts. As a Reds reliever again in 2004, Graves generated 13.8% strikeouts. Braden Looper‘s another similar guy who switched from relieving to starting, and with him there are similar patterns. The C.J. Wilson example remains instructive. These are generally examples of relievers changing to starters, but we can learn from their transitions. They were less successful on a rate basis out of the rotation, because starting is more of a challenge. As a reliever, Porcello would probably get more strikeouts, and he’d probably be good. Good enough to close for a contender without maiming its hopes and dreams.

For what it’s worth, though, one can’t ignore that Porcello would still be vulnerable to mediocre — or worse — infield defense. But every pitcher would pitch in front of that defense, and Porcello would rely less on grounders as a reliever than he does as a starter, most likely.

Should the Tigers do it?

Here’s the most important question, and it’s a question without a clear answer. We don’t know, precisely, how Porcello would feel about being a closer instead of a starter. We don’t know what other teams might be offering the Tigers in Porcello trade talks, and we don’t know what would happen to Porcello’s value were he to stop starting, at least temporarily.

What we do know is that, right now, Porcello and Drew Smyly are fighting for the fifth rotation slot. The loser of the battle, probably, will end up in the bullpen, probably as a long reliever. So already the Tigers are thinking about having a starter relieve. There’s a difference between long relief and short relief, but there’s a far greater difference between long relief and starting, and Smyly demonstrated a year ago that he can be an effective starter in the bigs. Porcello has seniority, but Smyly has talent. If it’s already an option that Porcello could open the season as a reliever, it isn’t that far out there that Porcello could open the season as a closer. If he’s good, why not have him throw the highest-leverage innings?

No decision would have to be permanent. Porcello could be changed back to being a starter, in the event of an injury, or in the event of development and improvement by Rondon. Porcello couldn’t just switch back overnight, but it wouldn’t have to be a long process, given his experience. Right now, Porcello might be the best closer candidate on the Tigers’ roster, and the Tigers want to win right away. Smyly doesn’t seem to be any worse as a starter, so Porcello could plug a hole, which would have value. The goal is to win and having Porcello close might bump up the Tigers’ 2013 projections.

A risk is that Porcello might not be able to do it, but then the experiment could be abandoned. A risk is that Porcello could diminish his trade value, but if the Tigers liked what was out there being offered, they probably would’ve taken a deal by now. There’s talk the Tigers might want to deal Porcello for a proven closer. Would the proven closer be any better than Porcello as a closer?

On paper, there’s enough sense here that the idea isn’t ridiculous. The Tigers, right now, have no closer, and two viable #5 starters. One of those #5 starters could conceivably close, and then the Tigers look better. Generally, fans aren’t fond of the idea of turning a starter into a reliever, but would it be any different than trading Porcello for a reliever? Porcello could always start again later on — he’s shown that he can do that. Of course, the game isn’t played on paper, and the Tigers value things like “provenness” and “contentment”. The Tigers, ideally, want a closer who’s shown he can close, and Porcello might not be open to a switch. It’s probably too much for the Tigers to do this close to opening day. But if the Tigers were to do it, just in case — it’d be ballsy, but it wouldn’t be absurd. Rick Porcello could probably close. Rick Porcello could probably be a good closer for a should-be playoff team.

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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.

28 Responses to “Rick Porcello: Potentially Actual Closer Material”

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  1. LaLoosh says:

    Benoit, Dotel, Coke, Rondon…. they have some good committee candidates already but I could see adding Lowe to the mix just for kicks.

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    • Kevin says:

      Don’t forget Alberqerque. He needs to get his walk numbers down a little bit, but anyone with that kind of slider and strikeout potential in his pitches can’t be overlooked.

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  2. Josh M says:

    What purpose does a closer serve other than chasing the arbitrary save stat? Jose Valverde collected plenty of saves for Detroit over the past several years despite peripherals that were pretty average at best. In most cases a save can be “earned” by not screwing up rather than actually being good. I think Detroit in particular and most every team in general would be better served playing matchups in the 9th inning just as they do in the 6th, 7th and 8th if their starter is not in the game. I guess this is all somewhat off subject but Porcello is much more valuable as a back of the rotation starter than he would be even if he were a great closer.

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    • Cidron says:

      Dunno what purpose a closer serves…. aside from the other teams perspective. You are a team, behind by a run or two, and you get to face Mo’ Rivera, or in the past any dominant closer. Its pretty much game over in 8 for your team, instead of still (realistically) fighting into the 9th. Your team gets the morale boost of “Mr. Closer” on the mound, and the foe gets the reverse, a morale decline under the same circumstances. This is assuming that your team trusts the closer (and the other team understands that he is the closer for a reason).

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      • byron says:

        But if you’re down 2 in the 7th, bases loaded, no one out, you get the relief of knowing there’s no way the Yankees bring Rivera in because it’s not a save situation. Rivera would be way scarier if you knew he’d come out just when things seemed like they had started to go well for you, rather than feeling safe from him until a certain time. Heck, if you can get a lead, you don’t need to worry about him at all.

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        • CircleChange11 says:

          At some point fans, including saberists, are going to understand that closers and starters have different abilities and skill sets that can make them highly effective in role but not necessarily the other.

          Closers in general are “sprinters”, pitchers are “marathoners”.

          Closers generally have amaqzing “stuff”, but lack the variety to get through a lineup multiple times effectively. Startes are generally the opposite, not blow batters away velocity, but enough quality and control and variety to get through a lineup 3 times.

          There are some guys that can do both, there are many others that should not.

          I would consider a starter as closer if pitch variety is their limitation, such as Feliz in Texas.

          I guess a classic example of the difference would be Jason Motte, and in recent past Mo Rivera. Neither would be effective closers due to lack of variety. However, they are one-trick ponies, it just so happens that the one trick is such that they are one trick stallions (one more than the other obviously).

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      • Anonymous says:

        I would also posit that part of Mo Rivera’s value in his career was that he had not been used as a strict 9th inning 1-2-3 option until later in his career. He has a great deal of outings that began in the 8th with runners on or 2 inning outings.

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    • Brendan J. says:

      By not screwing up, you are deemed as a good pitcher. Not following that logic. I fear for Detroit using a 24 year old pitcher, with the potential to improve all peripherals, as a bullpen piece. Like most have said, I see Porcello optimizing value at the SP position.

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      • Kevin says:

        I think the issue is more that a lot of people have now seen Porcello for 4 years, and he really hasn’t improved. Many feel this is as good as it will ever get with him. I’m not stating that it’s universally true or not. (Some things he has.) But for the most part, that’s how it is perceived here in the universe of Tiger fans.

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  3. byron says:

    Now I really want this to happen. I can just see Porcello finding his high school stuff again, working shorter stints, then bringing it with him when he transitions back to starting. 2.5 win starter to 1.5 win reliever to 4 win starter.

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  4. MLB Rainmaker says:

    What’s the issue with bringing in K-Rod on a one year deal?

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    • tigers fan says:

      the main issue is that he’s k-rod. the tigers should have signed jason grilli if they wanted a cheap closer. now they should stick with rondon and back him up with benoit.

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    • Anonymous says:

      K-Rod isn’t a very good pitcher. Detroit already has multiple better options in house.

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  5. BalkingHeads says:

    Another risk is that this experiment could totally mess up Porcello, like what has happened with Bard. Bard did go from relieving to starting, but the point still remains.

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    • byron says:

      Bard was an incredibly bad starter in the minors. He didn’t get messed up, he went back to being messed up.

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    • Anonymous says:

      Not only that, but Porcello does not have a future in Detroit. Pending the resigning of Verlander, they would already have Verlander, Fister, Sanchez locked up long term plus control of Smyly. I would think they would look to lock up Scherzer instead of Porcello, which makes Porcello the odd man out of Detroit’s future.
      The experiment that messed Porcello up was bringing him into MLB before his repertoire could be refined in the minors where his development is paramount to results. In MLB, results are paramount and he was thus trained to induce grounders while not refining his K stuff.

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  6. bilbo vibrator says:

    i really like jeff sullivan’s articles. I can tell its him before I see the author. Just a gives off a nice informative vibe instead of a sarcastic one prone to getting defensive against conflicting opinions.

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  7. commenter #1 says:

    smyly back to AAA has to be considered an option, i think

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    • Jaysfan says:

      The problem is that Smyly is the better starter – are they going to send Porcello back to AAA? I guarantee that will mess with his head.

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  8. NastyNate82 says:

    As a Bucs fan, I’m kinda bummed Hanrahan is gone now.

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  9. I’m still crossing my fingers that the Cubs can find a way to pry Porcello away from the Tigers before they find out his true value.

    I think he can be a good one for a long time.

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  10. Ben says:

    Would like to see the Indians trade Perez and Cararra to Detroit for Smyly and a couple of high-quality major-league-ready prospects.

    No matter the public stance, the Indians are over their budget with the signing of Bourn, so chopping Perez salary for Smyly’s would be a big help. Add that the Indians starting rotation is crummy and that they’re looking for some good young starters. Smyly would be ideal, especially being a left hander. Pestano can close at 1/10th of Perez’s salary, and the Indians have 4 right handed relievers that pitch set-up in the 8th and 7th.

    The trade can’t be made now as Perez has what appears to be a minor injury. If he does in fact come back healthy shortly after the season starts, this trade could be doable even though the teams are in the same division. Of course, it’s based on Mike Ilitch continuing to have deep pockets.

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  11. Spencer Jackman says:

    I like Smyly as a closer more than Porcello- proved he can get strikeouts last year, and closing will be well within his innings range

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  12. Le Vagabond says:

    As a tigers fan i would not be pleased with Porcello being traded for a closer especially the ones being touted. If Rick is going to get traded wait till nearer the deadline and maximize return. With Porcello and Smyly we have 2 good options for the number 5 spot but there is a major drop off after them so I would be reluctant to swing a trade as an injury to the starting rotation would be difficult to deal with otherwise

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  13. nope says:

    The cancerously bad infield defense the Tigers have is hiding the solid performance Porcello is actually putting out. It is pretty much guaranteed that Porcello will easily put out a above average ERA if he leaves town.

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  14. CircleChange11 says:

    By fangraph metrics, Rick Porcello has been an above average (and by a safe amount)starting pitcher for the last 3 years. I would have imagined that FG would light up Detroit if they even considered Porcello for closer.

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  15. Le Vagabond says:

    I personally will light up Detroit if they either 1 trade porcello for a closer not named Kimbrel 2 turn him into a closer or 3 obtain Carlos Marmol through any trade unless it envolves don Kelly no salary and a signed picture of Mother Theresa smoking pot

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  16. green key says:

    There was a fella name Zack who got put in relief, unshackled some latent heat, and discovered a strikeout tool that’s stayed with him since and might even stay with him over the next $150 million years.


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