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.



Print This Post



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.


Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
Older but not fatter yet
Guest
Older but not fatter yet
2 years 13 days 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.

Dave K
Guest
Dave K
2 years 13 days ago

Is there a way to determine how much of Detroit’s improved defense can be attributed to employing the shift? It’s a tactic that Leyland didn’t use, but one that Asmus seems to have bought into. So, the improvement could be less about the players and more about strategy?

Just a thought.

John
Guest
John
2 years 12 days ago

The Tigers have shifted less than 50 times this year, which I think places them in the bottom percentage of teams that employ the stragety. I think Houston has shifted more than 400 times.

Darrell Berger
Guest
Darrell Berger
2 years 11 days ago

Believe me, it’s about players. Kinsler/Infante is about a wash, but Miggie is MUCH better at first than Fielder, and I don’t think there are any metrics out there that truly measure what a difference a first baseman really makes. And Nick at third is better than Miggie and Romine/Worth have much more range than Peralta. And Ausmus is on record as saying that shifts are overused and over rated. That said, yeah, he’s way ahead of Leyland.

jmoultz
Member
jmoultz
2 years 13 days ago

The improved defense would have been very interesting if Iglesias didn’t go down for the season.

Alec Denton
Member
Member
2 years 13 days ago

Andrew Romine has looked above average in defensive relief of Iglesias.

Jhonny Peralta
Guest
Jhonny Peralta
2 years 12 days ago

He definitely passes the eye test.

Stan Gable
Guest
Stan Gable
2 years 12 days ago

You misspelled your first n–oh, right. Carry on.

John
Guest
John
2 years 12 days ago

A few weeks of Alex Gonzalez hurt their defensive numbers, since they dumped him Romine has filled in well.

Dave42
Guest
Dave42
2 years 13 days ago

Hidden in last year’s numbers is a pretty nice improvement after May 1. In his last 32 starts he has 202.1 innings, a 3.65 ERA, a 1.20 WHIP and 7.25 K/9.

Ebsco
Guest
Ebsco
2 years 13 days ago

Porcello’s stats over the past calendar year are basically Doug Fister’s 2013 numbers

Kevin Stovall
Guest
Kevin Stovall
2 years 13 days ago

I posted this in the earlier Robby Ray thread, but I will just hit the high point. In 3 starts last year that made up 5.6% of his innings, Porcello’s gave up 30,5% of his earned runs. In his other 26 starts he was every bit the pitcher Fister was, if not better. I don’t want to ignore those bad outings, he did have them, but in 33 of his last 36 starts he has been a number 3 or better on 80-90% of the leagues staffs. Quality starts is an obviously limited stat, not as good as FIP or ERA+, but in the case of Porcello’s it does tell you something the FIP &ERA+ don’t.

Costanza
Guest
Costanza
2 years 12 days ago

This would be more useful if we knew how all pitchers looked if you threw out their 3 worst starts.

Then, predictively, it would be useful if we knew how well this correlated year-to-year.

Kevin Stovall
Guest
Kevin Stovall
2 years 12 days ago

Costanza,
I don’t mean to imply that we should ignore those 3 starts, nor am I wanting to infer that the results for other pitchers wouldn’t improve a lot if we eliminated their 3 (or 10%) worst starts. Obviously every pitcher would look better with that criteria. To some degree it is cherry picking.

At the same time, based only on anecdotal observations, 30.5% of your earned runs, in only 5.6% of your innings, in 10% of your starts, for the entire season, is an extreme result. Those 3 outings can color your season totals in a significant manner, and certainly obscure the rest of your season.

Last year he had 18 QS in 29 starts (including his 3 hrrific outings), and this year he has 5 QS in 7. Quality starts is designed to tell you something different than FIP, or ERA+. What he is doing this year isn’t that much of a surprise, at least to me it isn’t.

Matthew Murphy
Member
2 years 12 days ago

Looking at the pitch data, it looks like Porcello’s biggest difference this year might be in the vertical movement of his four-seam fastball. This year, it’s “rising” a lot more, which has lead to a big jump in pop-ups on the four-seamer, and the increased gap in vertical movement may help the change play up. However, the ~45% line drive rate on the four-seamer is a bit worrisome.

Jim Jeffery
Guest
Jim Jeffery
2 years 10 days ago

His fast ball has been clocked at 95 which is about 3-4MPH more than ever before.

iSteve
Guest
iSteve
2 years 12 days ago

Thumbs, they’re under appreciated too.

awalnoha
Member
awalnoha
2 years 12 days ago

For a guys that has been really pretty mediocre he gets a lot of articles written about him.

Steven
Guest
Steven
2 years 12 days ago

Aside from the annual trade speculation articles, where are all these articles about him? Also, the guy is 25 and has already thrown over 900 big league innings and has reduced his FIP every single season.

It should also be worth noting that Jordan Zimmermann is 2 years older yet has a lower career WAR (mostly attributed to TJ surgery, but that also is a testament to Porcello’s durability), and when both were 24 years old, they posted very similar peripheral numbers and both had a 3.2 WAR season. Both guys are getting similar results in a similar fashion, yet I would not call Zimmermann “mediocre”.

DL80
Guest
DL80
2 years 12 days ago

Those comps don’t compute. Zimmermann has always had a very slightly below league (NL) average K rate and a much better than average BB rate. Porcello has always had a much much worse than AL average K rate and a better than average BB rate though not as much better as Zimmermann).

Zimmermann’s peripherals are just better, and his skill set (great control, almost average whiff rate) leaves much more margin for error than Porcello’s (good control, horrible whiff rate). And for all his ground balls, Porcello’s HR rate has been average or ever so slightly below for the AL. Zimmermann’s has been a bit better compared to the league.

So what exactly does Porcello do well? He doesn’t get K’s, he doesn’t keep the ball in the yard at a great rate, he gives up league average number of Line drives. He’s got good control, but that’s all. He’s really nothing special, a #4-5 starter at best in real life, and not someone you’d ever want pitching a playoff game.

That being said, I don’t think there are “too many articles” about him, as the above guy said.

Good Lord
Guest
Good Lord
2 years 10 days ago

Awwe look a Porcello hater everyone. I’d say having only 6 walks thus far this year is a pretty good indication he has a great walk rate. He keeps the ball on the ground better than almost all in baseball and has an improving curve with an above average change ans a plus sinker. Doesn’t give the up the long ball as well. Whats funny about comments is that he pitched like a #3 last year, and WAR would even agree. He has a sub 3.00 ERA right now. The ony thing lacking is the k-rate….which had been trending upwards and sat at 7.22 last year. He only needs to have a k-rate around 7 to be successful as long as his current skill set is what it is. You need to update your thinking on Porcello because your post highlights your lack of ability to keep up with the times concerning him. BTW….Porcello>>>>>>Zimmerman going forward.

Steven
Guest
Steven
2 years 9 days ago

I agree that Porcello is better than a #4/5 starter, but I’m not sure why you think he “Porcello>>>>>>Zimmermann going forward.” You can’t just completely disregard Porcello consistently underperforming his FIP. While some of it may be a result of Detroit’s defense, 1) Detroit’s defense hasn’t been as bad as its reputation and 2) We haven’t seen enough data in other Detroit pitchers to assume it’s completely defense-based.

For the past three years, here are their stats:
Zimmermann: 7.8 WAR, 9.4 RA9 WAR, velocity per year (93.8, 93.9, 93.6)
Porcello: 7.4 WAR, 4.8 RA9 WAR (92.3, 91.6, 90.5)

There is a huge difference when you include Porcello’s consistently high babip. Porcello’s velocity has also been dropping whereas Zimmermann’s has not. Looking only at a quarter-season’s worth of data only is rather dubious, and when considering the whole package, Porcello is definitely not “>>>>>>” Zimmermann.

Fujikawa-Bunga
Guest
Fujikawa-Bunga
2 years 12 days ago

Is it possible to see the changeup metrics against lefties only or split? Good spotlight though – he’s doing really well.

Cheesewhiz
Guest
Cheesewhiz
2 years 12 days ago

“as-expected-achiever. We really need a better word for that.”

I respectfully suggest “Dennis.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aYKIcnj1MJY

Zimm
Guest
Zimm
2 years 12 days ago

after all these years, i was worried that procello was turning into a modern day mike morga: in the bigs very young, very long career, with moments of very good but mostly meh.

he also has not yet played for enough teams for the morgan comp to work…

Mike Morgan
Guest
Mike Morgan
2 years 12 days ago

You’re ‘mostly meh’, dude.

Kevin
Guest
Kevin
2 years 12 days ago

““as-expected-achiever. We really need a better word for that.”

I believe the word you’re looking for is “achiever”.

MDL
Member
MDL
2 years 12 days ago

Whelming.

catswithbats
Guest
catswithbats
2 years 9 days ago

The effect of infield defense on Porcello’s numbers has always been overstated. His BA on ground balls has never been abnormally inflated. Look at his hit trajectory, particularly in 2012, for example. His BA on ground balls was .242. His BABIP was .344. (His BA on line drives was .756 that year, BTW.)

I think a lot of his improvement actually stems from his ability to get LHB out after being practically unpitchable against them previously. LHB are posting a .633 OPS against Porcello this year, after an .803 OPS in 2013 and an .883 OPS in 2012.

saint
Guest
saint
1 year 11 months ago

Career XFIP- 95
2014 XFIP- 97

That’s OK, I’m sure some other pitcher will run hot on ERA over the next month and you can write a retarded article about him instead

wpDiscuz