Rick Porcello on Maintaining Change

Rick Porcello has changed his pitching mix this year. Most noticeably, he’s ditched his cutter for a curveball. The move was done for a variety of reasons, but the work continues to this day. Because even once you make a change, you have to work hard to maintain it.

The Tiger starter told me that he “really dedicated” himself to working on his curve this offseason, mostly because the cutter/slider “wasn’t really working.” Since it moves left to right, it cuts right into the meat of the plate for lefties. “The curveball is a more effective pitch to left-handers, which is something I struggle with,” Porcello admitted to me before his team played the White Sox in Chicago this week. Over his career, the pitcher has allowed lefties lower strikeout and grounder rates and higher walk rates than he has allowed to righties.

So this past winter, Porcello went to work: “The first thing I did this offseason was to really fine-tune my mechanics to where I was getting to a consistent release point, keeping everything the same, and from there, basically throwing my curveball out of the same arm slot as my fastball and changeup and just getting consistent with it.” A lot of throwing sessions later, he was a three-pitch pitcher coming into the season.

This year, he’s more than tripled his usage of the curve against lefties. It’s now his primary pitch when ahead against lefties. And he has the highest swinging strike, strikeout and ground-ball rates of his career. His FIP against lefties — career 4.47 — dropped to 3.81. For the first time in his career, he’s above-average against lefties.

That didn’t mean the curve didn’t need more refinement after the gong sounded. “It’s a pitch that still, there are times when I throw it in a game and it’s really good, and there are games when it’s a little off, it’s a work in progress,” Porcello said. In the offseason, he had the benefit of time and as many bullpen sessions as he wanted to throw. In-season, he’s more focused, so he uses video. “I’ll take a game where I’ve thrown it well, and then I’ll take the game last one and look at my release point, and my hand, and my head, and the distance from my hand relative to my head, he said, adding that “When my hand gets too far away from my head it gets lazy.”

Here is what he means in graph format. These release points are not necessarily cleaned up for each park situation, but you can see a fairly large difference from his first four starts in April and the rest of his work through April.

PorcelloRelease

Here is a breakdown of the difference between his early April release points and those he’s shown since then, using BrooksBaseball. If you prefer GIF format, here are two curves from the most disparate game charts, April 20 (on the left), and April 27 (on the right). (Wish they’d played for different camera views those dates.)

Porcello420Porcello427

Even beyond any change on the rubber, it seems that his curveball sometimes drifts. Combating that drift is the kind of work Porcello has to do to make sure his curveball is coming out of the same slot as his other pitches.

Porcello has made some other, smaller changes. For one, he says that he’s thrown more four-seamers this year, “especially up in the zone with two strikes to try and elevate the eye level.” While it’s not necessarily a pitch he’ll go to in a big situation, it does give him a “different look.” His “main thing is to get ground balls” on his sinker low in the zone still, but “to have the ability to strike guys out is important, especially in this league.” From the heatmaps, it seems like that might always have been part of his arsenal, but the percentages do agree that he’s throwing the four-seamer a little bit more to both lefties and righties than he has in the past.

And then there’s just the work he has to do to be ready for each game. Porcello takes the scouting report that is given to him by the team and goes through it like any other pitcher, but then he writes up his own attack plan for each hitter. “Every pitcher is different and every pitcher has different weapons,” he pointed out, adding that the Tigers have “a couple starting pitchers on this team that throw 98 miles per hour.” So he has to figure out his own unique attack plan that fits his skillset.

Once his start is over, there’s a respite. And then he’s back to the video, to check his arm slot. Back to the video, to see which hitters struggled with which pitches. Back to the bullpen mound, to make sure the mechanics are in order. Into the scouting reports, and then back on the bump to see how the curve is working that day.




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Graphs: Baseball, Roto, Beer, brats (OK, no graphs for that...yet), repeat. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris.

14 Responses to “Rick Porcello on Maintaining Change”

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  1. Eno Sarris says:

    From Dan Brooks, another way of looking at the curve release point: http://t.co/GF80dFCrrq

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  2. John says:

    I am impressed that you were able to find a pitch from Porcello on the April 20th start where it didn’t get hit. As his line from that day goes.

    IP H R ER BB SO HR ERA
    Porcello(L, 0-2) 0.2 9 9 9 1 0 1 11.08

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  3. Yep says:

    Detroit should hurry up and trade him to the Cubs.

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    • Matt says:

      I agree to some extent that the Tigers should trade him, but only because he has elite groundball inducing skills (57.3% this year) and those are slightly wasted on a team with the awful infield defense of a detroit.

      That said, he’s still only 25, and his peripherals are all trending in the right direction… 4 straight years of improved K:BB rate and ground ball rate, career best xFIP of 3.21. He probably needs a year or so to refine his curve enough to reach potential.

      He could be what Dan Haren was (with more velo) on a team with plus infield defense

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      • The Party Bird says:

        Doug Fister never really seemed to get destroyed by the infield defense. He’s also an extreme groundball pitcher and he always seems to have an ERA right around his FIP.

        The Tigers defense is overstated as a factor in Porcello’s struggles.

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        • derp says:

          I’m not even going to get into the argument of what i’m about to do, but remove that .2 inning disaster from his season and Porcello has a 3.74 ERA, which came during those initial struggles highlighted above in April.

          Still, both Fister and Porcello have stranded rates lower than what the other three strikeout heavy pitchers on Detroit’s rotation have. Spare me the need for proof, but i’m fairly certain that is a symptom of bad defense for groundball heavy pitchers.

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      • catswithbats says:

        Actually, he won’t even turn 25 until December. Seems like he’s been around forever.

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  4. Chcago Mark says:

    Hey Eno,
    It’s Chicago Mark from Fizz in Chicago. We talked just a bit. Do you think Porc is on his way to some sort of “results” breakout sometime soon? I know he’s actually been a better pitcher but the results era/whip are still poor. And you know as well as me that’s what us fantasy folks are looking for.

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    • Matt says:

      I’m sure you could care less what I think, but these are the types of pitchers that you take at draft spot 180 or later in leagues that scream breakout potential. Improving peripherals portend to “surprising” breakouts (see Ubaldo Jimenez circa 2011)

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  5. Paul B. says:

    I read this whole article saying Porchello in my head.

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  6. Dirck says:

    I traded for Porcello ( for Morneau)in one of my dynasty leagues last winter. I will be looking to trade for him in my other leagues .

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  7. lexomatic says:

    I’m confused about this move, isn’t the cutter always touted as being effective against opposite handed hitters? Maybe if it’s always ending up over the plate it has something to do with where he’s standing, or where he’s pitching too. Those seem much easier fixes than working on a new pitch.

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    • Eno Sarris says:

      Cutter is basically a slider and has platoon splits like it. Glove side movement. You might be thinking two-seamer.

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      • derp says:

        But cutters in on the hands of opposite handed hitters are highly effective, sliders not so much. There are just very few pitchers good enough at using it that can, the rest are Mo wannabees.

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