Have the Tigers Ruined Rick Porcello?

Coming out of Seton Hall Prep in 2007, Rick Porcello was an ace in the making.  When scouts combined his age, velocity, and dominance (103Ks in 63 IP as a Senior); they saw a front-of-the-line major league starter. After being draft 27th overall, Detroit wasted no time showcasing their young ace. In order to ensure Porcello developed his other pitches, the Tigers insisted that Porcello stop relying on his curve. With his new approach, Porcello only managed 5.18 K/9 in his brief stint in the minor leagues.  Two seasons later, the strikeouts and the curveball have almost disappeared completely. While it’s still extremely early in his career, is it possible that the Tigers may have ruined Rick Porcello?

Here’s what Keith Law wrote about Porcello in 2009:

He doesn’t miss a lot of bats with the new approach, but generating ground balls keeps the pitch count down, and pitchers who throw strikes and don’t give up home runs can be very successful. But bear in mind that Porcello has the raw stuff to be more of a strikeout pitcher, and when he reaches the majors, he could blend the two approaches and be one of the top pitchers in the game.

That last sentence sums up the main cause for concern with Porcello. While scouts believe Porcello has the ability to dominate, his K/9 rate in the majors is a dismal 4.70. Even more disturbing is Porcello’s disappearing curveball. After throwing his curve 8.1% of the time in 2009, Porcello is only throwing his curveball .2% of the time in 2010.  Unless Detroit is still enforcing the “no-curve rules,” it might be time to start worrying whether his approach has been permanently impacted. It is interesting that the curve was Porcello’s worst pitch in 2009 according to the pitch type values. His reluctance to throw it in 2010, could mean that he has lost confidence in the pitch. The big question is, whether Porcello can be an ace without his curve?

Then again, Porcello is still only 21 years old and has already experienced success in the majors. It’s certainly possible that a) the Tigers are still enforcing the “no-curve rules,” or b) Porcello continues to develop into an ace while in the majors. Porcello did not spend a lot of time in the minors, and he is exceptionally young for his level. Typically, only the most promising players reach the majors at Porcello’s age. However, it is disturbing that his current approach has not produced “ace” results. Just for reference, Mark Buehrle has a higher career K/9 rate than Porcello’s current K/9. As Keith Law stated in his 2009 top prospect list, pitchers that get ground balls and prevent home runs have a lot of value, but Porcello was drafted as an ace and not an innings-eater. Yes, it’s still incredibly early in his career, but there is already some evidence to suggest Detroit may have mishandled their prized pitcher.

*This article was originally written on Foulpole2Foulpole.com




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Chris is a blogger for CBSSports.com. He has also contributed to Sports on Earth, the 2013 Hard Ball Times Baseball Annual, ESPN, FanGraphs and RotoGraphs. He tries to be funny on twitter @Chris_Cwik.


14 Responses to “Have the Tigers Ruined Rick Porcello?”

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  1. the fume says:

    Porcello said himself after he signed that he did not have a swing and miss fastball, but that it was much more of a sinker.

    For his first year, the Tigers essentially told him to pick one between the slider and curve and focus on that. He focused on the curve (although he was focusing most on the fastball/change), but that got crushed in the bigs. So he went to the slider at the end of last season, with success, and the Tigers said use that. Unfortunately, the slider was getting killed this season, so for the last couple starts he’s been throwing the curve.

    To get the K-rate up, he’s going to have to find a breaking pitch and be effective with it. But I find it doubtful that he had a ML quality strikeout pitch in high school and lost it in A-ball. Much more likely he never had it.

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  2. Chris Cwik says:

    That is certainly a possibility, but Porcello’s complete dominance in high school (including his strikeouts) is what got him drafted in the 1st round. When I looked through the pitch f/x data, I found that he was starting to throw his curve again, but only 1-2 times a game.

    I do, however, think it is possible that the Tigers’ approach lead to Porcello losing a feel for his curve. While I see the benefit of having him work on all his pitches, the curve appeared to be his swing-and-miss offering. If, for whatever reason, he continues to use the curve sparingly, it could really handicap his ceiling. If he never lives up to his “ace” potential, you have to wonder if the Tigers mishandled him given the rules they placed on him.

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  3. NotACurve says:

    He threw a slider in high school not a curve. He began learning a curve in the minors to avoid injury risk by relying on his slider. I’m sure as he gains more comfort with his curve he will use it more. It’s pretty obvious that he is still learning to throw his offspeed pitches and learning how to pitch. He is throwing 75% of his pitches as a two seamer or a four seamer and struggling with command this season. As you stated he is 21 and would still be in the minors if he didn’t have a pitch (his sinker) that allowed him to get by and allow him some success in the majors.

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  4. RPS says:

    On the FSDetroit pregame shows last week, one of the features was interviews with the starting pitchers during which they ran through the grips they use for their various pitches. When Porcello was showing his curve grip he said something along the lines of “This is my curveball… when they let me throw it.” Based on this, as well as all the little quotes you hear when it’s Your Team, I think it’s reasonable to assume that he is still being encouraged to not throw the curve; that it’s an organizational decision rather than Porcello having lost his feel for or confidence with the curve Whether this decision is permanently setting back his development is certainly an open question, but the dude did throw a lot of innings last year at age 20. There may well be long term value in trying to keep him off the curve until next year.

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  5. jklender says:

    You said it yourself, it’s way too early to draw such a conclusion. Especially when you grant the success that they’ve already had with him. It’s a huge leap to say that he’s reached his ceiling, having already won 18 games at the age of 21 and being called upon to anchor his team in the biggest game of the year. That’s pretty darn close ot “ace” material as it is, whatever his peripherals may say.

    I’d prefer it if more young starters learned to pitch to contact as well as he has in his young career, instead of trying to strike everyone out. That’s how a lot of guys ruin themselves. The leap in logic expecting him to dominate Major League hitters at this point is equally as large as the leap from pitching against high schoolers to being in the show.

    So no, quite to the contrary, I think having him pitch within his developing abilities and focus on efficiency seems to have been a very wise choice that has already paid off enormously for the Tigers — and may just as likely help him blossom into the type of “ace” that some expected. It’s just far too soon to state definitively either way.

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  6. fizzle says:

    Its a little extreme to say “whatever his peripherals may say.”

    So a pitcher that wins 18 games but has a FIP ERA of 6 (or xFIP, etc) is doing great in spite of their terrible peripherals? Good results don’t necessarily result from good processes. This is just like the Joe Carter RBI argument, high batting average mirage, or “clutchiness” viewpoints. Sigh.

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  7. George says:

    If Porcello has been ruined its by Scott Boras and his own greed, insisting on a ML contract out of HS which in turn meant the Tigers had to rush him through the minors in a maximum of 3 years.

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  8. jklender says:

    That’s taking things on a bit of a tangent… What I meant was that, in my opinion, his accomplishments last year as a kid a year removed from high school tend to outweigh some of the problems that stand out when looking at the data.

    Even still, he is closer to a front-line pitcher than to a bust. There’s nothing wrong with the question being posed in terms of whether their organization’s strategy for him is working as well as it could, but surmising that they may have “ruined” him already is taking things to the extreme, far too soon.

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  9. jklender says:

    George,

    Remember, teams only draft players and agree to such deals if they believe they are worth the risk. Nobody holds a gun to their heads, and I doubt the Tigers have ever second-guessed their investment with Porcello.

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  10. Chris Cwik says:

    RPS,
    It’s really interesting to me that the Tigers may still be imposing the “no-curve rules” on Porcello. Last season, Porcello put up some good numbers, so I’m sure the Tigers figured “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” With Porcello’s ERA sitting at 5.58 this year, I figured the Tigers would allow him to unleash his curve on hitters. Then again, Porcello’s FIP currently sits at 4.16.

    I don’t mean to suggest that Porcello has failed in his brief major league career. What interests me is the Tigers decision to tell Porcello that he cannot throw (arguably) his best pitch. If it is as strong as advertised, I would expect Porcello and Verlander to be one of the better 1-2 combos in the league. I know the Tigers are looking at the long term potential of Porcello, but if he’s capable of dominating right now, why hold him back?

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  11. the fume says:

    Knapp, the pitching coach, wanted him to focus on the slider to begin this year, because he had more success with it at the end of last year than he did with the curve. Unfortunately, the slider has been getting crushed, so I think that’s where that comment about the curve came in…..Rick was ready to try something different.

    And honestly, I’m not sure what to make of the f/x data, because I’m pretty sure he was featuring the curve against the Dodgers and they’re labeling most of them as sliders.

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  12. Chris Cwik says:

    Perhaps one of the more enlightened writers at FanGraphs can shed some light on this?

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  13. the fume says:

    I looked it up because I know the Tigers beat writer covered this: Porcello threw the slider and curve out of high school, and the organization wanted him to focus on 1. He chose the curveball. But I don’t think he focused on this exclusively because others report him having both pitches flashing plus in the minors, with command being the issue. Plus, he went more from the curve to the slider in the middle of last season, I don’t know if he would do that cold.

    As far as what he’s throwing now, the breaking pitches were around 80-83 mph, so I guess that’s a slider, although the break looked more like a curve to me. I haven’t seen the 75-78 mph pitch much this season, which may be what he considers the curve. So I would guess he’s still sticking with the slider.

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  14. redsoxtalk says:

    I don’t know if I qualify as enlightened, but if you take a look at his PITCHf/x data, you’ll see that the pitch breakdown goes like this:
    http://www.fangraphs.com/pitchfx.aspx?playerid=2717&position=P

    2009: 4.8% slider (80.2 mph), 7.6% curve (76.7 mph)
    2010: 11.5% slider (81.3 mph), 0.6% curve (78.1 mph)

    Porcello’s slider was never one of those hard sliders anyway, but more of a slurvy pitch, in-between the two. It’s a matter of velocity, spin and break; and my guess is that PITCHf/x is having some difficulty separating the two pitches out.

    If you add the two percentages in 2009, they roughly equal the percentages in 2010. I wouldn’t say he’s abandoned his curve so much as say he’s throwing it harder, taking the extra velocity at the expense of less horizontal and vertical break, more like a slider.

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