Porcello’s Rookie Year

On Tuesday evening, Detroit Tigers right-hander Rick Porcello will look to tame the Twins and pitch his club into a divisional series matchup against the leviathan otherwise known as the New York Yankees. Much has been written about the 20 year-old’s ascension from Seton Hall Prep to the Motor City in the blink of an eye. Just how has Porcello combated unrelenting American League line-ups as a 20 year-old? Let’s take a look.

Porcello, of course, spent very little time on the farm. The highly-touted 6-5 starter came with all the scouting accolades, but teams selecting at the top of the 2007 amateur draft shied away. The Tigers, at pick number 27, finally came calling, gambling that an agreement could be reached. Detroit eventually kept Porcello from becoming a North Carolina Tar Heel, dishing out a cool $3.58M bonus.

Making his pro debut in 2008, Porcello tossed 125 frames for Lakeland of the High-A Florida State League. In its 2009 Prospect Handbook, Baseball America noted that Rick’s best offering was “a heavy two-seamer that averages 92 MPH and ranges up to 95, with boring action in on the hands of right handers.” That pitch was on full display in the FSL, as Porcello posted a 64.1% groundball rate. He also did a nice job of painting the black (2.38 BB/9), though his strikeout rate was less than anticipated for a premium prospect (5.18 K/9).

Baseball America offered some clues as to why that whiff rate was modest. He “shelved his slider to focus on his curveball”, and the Tigers “placed him on a 75-pitch limit for each start.”

In 2009, Porcello shot straight to the majors. Heading into his tilt with the Twins, Rick has racked up 165 frames in his rookie campaign. He has again burned worms at an impressive clip, inducing a grounder 54.4% of the time. That’s the highest rate in the A.L., and places fifth among all starters. Porcello has been stingy with the walks as well, issuing 2.73 BB/9.

In most cases, there’s a trade-off between grounders and punch outs; more of one usually entails less of the other. That has certainly been the story with Porcello. He has whiffed just 4.42 batters per nine frames, fourth-lowest among starters. Only Joel Pineiro, Nick Blackburn and John Lannan have fooled fewer batters on a per-inning basis.

The reason for the lack of swings and misses becomes apparent when one looks at Porcello’s pitch usage. Rick has relied upon a 91 MPH sinker about 77 percent of the time. True to the scouting reports, that pitch has excellent tailing action in on the hands of righty batters and is responsible for the hefty groundball rate.

But, as Harry Pavlidis showed earlier this summer, that sinker gets very few whiffs. Still, Porcello’s boring two-seamer has been worth +0.81 runs per 100 pitches this season.

Porcello does feature three other pitches: an 81 MPH slider (used about five percent of the time), 77 MPH curveball (eight percent) and an 81 MPH changeup (ten percent). None of those offerings are instilling much fear in opposing batters, though. Porcello’s slider comes in at -1.17 runs/100, with the curve worth -2.53 per 100 tosses. He hasn’t pulled the string especially well, either (-0.98).

Armed with one plus pitch and a three other seldom-used offerings in their nascent stages of development, Porcello has often had the ball put in play against him. His overall contact rate is 84.7% (80.5% MLB average), with opponents putting the bat on the ball 91 percent of the time on pitches within the strike zone (87.8% MLB average).

It’s not especially surprising that Porcello, using a sinker nearly four out of five pitches, has generated so few K’s. As Dave Allen explained back in August, there is a positive relationship between the vertical movement of a fastball and its whiff rate (the higher in the zone, the more whiffs generated; the lower in the zone, the fewer whiffs gotten).

There is also an inverse relationship between vertical movement and groundball rate. In other words, a fastball thrown high in the strike zone is likely to generate more swings and misses, while generating fewer groundballs. By contrast, a fastball like Porcello’s, buried at the batter’s knees low in the zone, is going to garner a higher groundball rate but few whiffs.

At an age where most pitching prospects are in A-Ball attempting to refine their secondary stuff, Porcello has managed to keep his head above water in the DH league. But his FIP (4.81) is more indicative of his performance than his ERA (4.04). Porcello obviously has plenty of development time left, though, and has a strong base of skills to build upon.

With strong groundball tendencies and quality control, Rick doesn’t have to post obscene K rates to be a successful starter. Will Porcello become a different sort of pitcher in the years to come, mixing in more breaking balls and changeups? That would likely lead to more strikeouts, but may come at the expense of some of those grounders.

That’s a question for another day, though. For now, Porcello will look to get Twins batters to chop that sinker into the dirt often enough to clinch a playoff berth.

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A recent graduate of Duquesne University, David Golebiewski is a contributing writer for Fangraphs, The Pittsburgh Sports Report and Baseball Analytics. His work for Inside Edge Scouting Services has appeared on ESPN.com and Yahoo.com, and he was a fantasy baseball columnist for Rotoworld from 2009-2010. He recently contributed an article on Mike Stanton's slugging to The Hardball Times Annual 2012. Contact David at david.golebiewski@gmail.com and check out his work at Journalist For Hire.

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It’s worth remembering that his HR/FB is high, so FIP doesn’t do a great job of capturing his performance either. His xFIP is 4.59 (per Hardball Times, it’s interesting to note that they have his FIP at 4.91, a little higher than FanGraphs).