“Don’t trust the spring training numbers.” It’s a common phrase uttered by wise fantasy analysts. For many reasons, spring training stats are an unreliable gauge of a player’s talents. Despite the constant reminders that spring numbers don’t matter, countless articles will be written chronicling “player X” and his excellent spring. Rick Porcello has emerged as one of the more popular spring breakout candidates this year. Ninety-five percent of the time, it would be wise to laugh off these articles as small sample size fodder. But in the case of Porcello, there may actually be reason to buy into the hype.
What makes Porcello’s surge more legitimate this spring is the re-emergence of his curveball. Every spring, there are stories about pitchers tinkering with new pitches. In Porcello’s case, he’s bringing back an old weapon. Porcello’s curveball was considered one of his better pitches when he was drafted. Keith Law spoke highly of Porcello’s curveball prior to the 2007 draft:
Rick Porcello, right-handed pitcher, Seton Hall Prep (West Orange, N.J.): Big-framed, projectable righty with a 92-94 mph fastball that touches 97, a plus curve, and some feel for pitching.
So did the Astros’ Coordinator of Pro Scouting Kevin Goldstein:
Porcello entered the year as the top arm among his class, and while his year in the cold of the Northeast didn’t start until Easter, he’s been impressive, pumping mid-90s heat while flashing an impressive spike curveball and a changeup surprisingly advanced for someone his age.
For whatever reason, the Tigers decided to limit Porcello’s curveball usage as he was coming up through the minors. Porcello used the pitch 7.6% of the time during his rookie season, but it has hovered around just 3% over the past three seasons.
Fans hear plenty of stories about pitchers toying with new pitches during the spring. More often than not, those stories are overblown. In Porcello’s case, there’s some evidence that he might actually use his curve more this season. Jeff Sullivan provided some video evidence of Porcello’s curve earlier this month. In his March, 4 start against the Astros, Porcello threw 12 curveballs over his four innings of work. This wasn’t an instance of him just using the pitch a few times, he was clearly attempting to work on it. Porcello confirmed as much once he was out of the game, telling the Tigers’ broadcasters that he’s focusing on just throwing the curveball, and not his slider, this season. You can watch that start here if you are an MLB.TV subscriber.
That should be an effective strategy. Over four years worth of data, Porcello’s slider has a -26.5 pitch type, making it easily his worst pitch. Even if the curve is average, that would be a big upgrade if it means he’s throwing his slider less.
If these trends hold into the season, Porcello could be in for a breakout. While embracing his curve again doesn’t mean he’s suddenly become an ace, it does give him a fair amount of upside based on where he’s being drafted. His average ADP over at ESPN is 224.9. It’s 290 at Mock Draft Central, and it’s below 260 in Yahoo (their list doesn’t go any lower). The point is, by the time you’re thinking about drafting him, there aren’t many promising guys left. If Porcello is serious about using his curve again, there’s a good chance his upside is higher than most of the pitchers still available at that point in drafts. If you’re unwilling to take the plunge, keep him on your radar. If Porcello gets off to a strong start, and is using his curve more than ever, there’s reason to buy into the skill change early. These are the types of adjustments that can lead to breakouts.