Rick Porcello's Rare Dominance Shining Bright in Star-Studded Tigers Rotation

Jacob ShaferFeatured ColumnistJuly 2, 2014

Getty Images

Rick Porcello recorded zero strikeouts Tuesday night against the Oakland A's en route to his second consecutive complete game shutout.

Somehow, that made it even more impressive.

Instead of racking up the Ks, Porcello used his bowling ball sinker to induce a procession of ground balls off the bats of the A's and lead the Detroit Tigers to a 3-0 win. 

Most impressively, it was Porcello's second consecutive shutout. And it came against the hard-hitting A's, owners of baseball's highest-scoring offense. 

With Tuesday's gem, Porcello became the first Tigers pitcher since 1986 to throw back-to-back shutouts (the last guy to do it was Jack Morris, per MLB.com).

He also extended his scoreless streak to 25.1 innings. Prior to his last shutout against the Texas Rangers (the first of his career) Porcello tossed six scoreless frames against the Cleveland Indians.

No one has crossed home plate against him since June 15.

"I don't want to jinx it," Porcello said when asked about the streak, per the Associated Press (via ABC News). "All I know is that I'm throwing the ball really well right now."

Porcello's less than halfway to Orel Hershiser's all-time record of 59 straight scoreless innings, set in 1988, but he's still in rarefied territory. 

He's also looking more and more like one of the best arms in the Tigers' star-studded staff.

Porcello is now tied for the Major League lead with 11 wins, and his 3.12 ERA and 1.13 WHIP are second only to Anibal Sanchez among Detroit starters.

As ace Justin Verlander has seen his velocity drop and ERA skyrocket and Max Scherzer has so far failed to find his Cy Young form, Porcello has stepped up to fill the void—and help keep the Tigers atop the AL Central.  

"Obviously, Rick is throwing the ball extremely well right now," Detroit skipper Brad Ausmus told the AP after Tuesday's win. "He had a great curveball and changeup tonight, and the sinker was better than that. It makes my job a lot easier when the starter has only thrown 88 pitches through eight innings."

Porcello's final pitch count was an economical 95, the result of his zero-strikeout, zero-walk performance. 

It may not be as flashy as vintage Verlander and his triple-digit gas. But when that sinker's working, when baseball's premier offensive team is pounding pitch after pitch into the dirt, it's every bit as effective.

Last year Porcello finished with a 4.32 ERA in 177 innings, similar to the numbers he's put up in each of his five big league seasons. Serviceable, in other words, but unspectacular.

So far this season, he's erred more on the side of spectacular. What's the difference? Here's Porcello's take, per the Detroit Free Press:

I’ve been able to work out of some trouble this year that maybe in prior years I haven’t been so good at. I’ve been able to slow the game down a little bit better and recognize situations and understand when is the time to pound them with sinkers and when is the time to mix it up, especially with runners on base. In years past, I’ve fallen into the habit of throwing a lot of sinkers because that’s my best pitch and maybe not necessarily setting it up and going about it in the right way.

The numbers back that up: Porcello is throwing the sinker less frequently than in any season since his 2009 rookie campaign, according to FanGraphs, and it's yielding better results. Opposing batters have a .252 batting average on balls in play against Porcello this year, compared to .300 last year (some of the credit certainly goes to the Detroit defense).

His teammates are digging the new and improved Porcello, even if it makes their lives less exciting.

"To be honest, it was pretty boring out there," outfielder Torii Hunter joked after Tuesday's game, which saw 17 outs recorded on the ground, per the AP. Only two other pitchers this year, ESPN.com notes, have gotten that many ground-ball outs in a game.

If that's what passes for boring, the Tigers will take it.