Rick Porcello wasn’t given much of a chance. With the Detroit Tigers down 2-1 heading into last night’s game, many wondered whether Jim Leyland should throw Justin Verlander on short rest instead of the 22-year-old Porcello. Porcello has been somewhat of an enigma since entering the league. Though he was widely considered one of the best pitching prospect in his draft class — an ace with a true strikeout curveball — he’s turned into more of a back-end starter in the big leagues. Despite Porcello’s struggles in the majors, Leyland stuck to his guns and turned to Porcello to even the series. Though the Tigers failed to win the game, Porcello didn’t let his manager — or his team — down.
The biggest knock against Porcello since he’s reached the majors is his lack of strikeouts. After he was drafted, the Tigers ordered Porcello to stop throwing his curve and focus more on getting ground ball outs. The approach worked, but perhaps not in the way the Tigers expected. Porcello excelled at getting ground balls, but the strikeouts — along with the curveball — vanished. When Porcello is able to rack up the strikeouts — like he did last night — it’s a true reminder of the type of pitcher many projected just a few seasons ago.
If you followed the Twitter-verse during the game last night, it was hard to ignore all the tweets about Porcello. After his first three innings; Jason Churchill, Kevin Goldstein and Buster Olney all wondered if this was the best they had ever seen Porcello. At his best, Porcello should be able to combine strikeouts and grounders.
Sure enough, Porcello delivered in both areas last night. Porcello nearly matched his season-high in strikeouts, racking up six in 6.2 innings. Instead of reviving his curve, Porcello relied on his slider to rack up the strikeouts last night. Of his six strikeouts, four of them came on sliders. The pitch gave Rangers’ hitters a lot of trouble last night.
When he wasn’t using his slider to pick up strikeouts, Porcello pounded the zone with his fastball. As usual, the ground balls came in bunches. Against the Rangers –one of the best home run hitting teams in the majors this year — Porcello forced 11 ground ball outs. It’s rare to find a pitcher who can induce ground balls at such a high rate, while also managing to post strong strikeout numbers. Last night, Porcello displayed that rare talent.
Unfortunately, Porcello’s promising start last night will be overlooked. Porcello struggled in the sixth inning, leading to the Rangers scoring three runs and ultimately winning the game. Had he not made a throwing error — which caused the Rangers to eventually take the lead — we might be talking about Porcello’s “resiliency” or how Jim Leyland’s bold decision to hold Verlander until Game 5 paid off.
Still, for five innings we got to see what the scouts projected just a few years ago. Outside of one poor inning, Porcello reminded the baseball world of his true potential. While it’s more than likely Porcello “is who he is” at this point, it’s starts like these that should give Tigers’ fans hope that there’s still a little more growth in the 22-year-old. With a few more starts like this, no one will question whether Porcello should be starting a post-season game.