The Detroit Tigers are once again championship contenders in 2014. At 55-41 and 6.5 games clear of their nearest division rival, they are poised to make another run at an elusive World Series title. Key to their success so far has been the breakout season of starting pitcher Rick Porcello. The tall right-hander has been an integral part of the team’s success at a time when it really needed him to raise his game.
The offseason exit of Doug Fister via trade caused much consternation in Detroit. Fister had an excellent two-and-half-year stint as a Tiger, winning 45 games (including postseason). With big shoes to fill, literally and figuratively, Porcello was the man counted on to pick up the slack left by his former teammate.
Detroit’s starting rotation has been one of its main strengths in recent years. Despite Fister’s aforementioned departure and the struggles of Justin Verlander (career-worst 4.84 ERA), Porcello has helped to maintain its high quality through the season’s first four months. Tigers starters have combined for 44 wins (first in AL) and also rank in the top five in ERA, WHIP and batting average against.
Porcello’s performances so far this season have been his finest as an MLB player. His 12 wins are equal highest in the majors and only one shy of his career high for a full season. Also, his ERA (3.39), WHIP (1.18) and batting average against (.253) are all career-best marks.
At times, Porcello has completely dominated opposing lineups. The New Jersey native notched six-straight wins during April-May, followed by a 25.1-inning scoreless streak in June-July. His latter feat included back-to-back complete-game shutouts, one of which came against the AL’s second-best offense—Oakland.
With 119.1 innings already logged, Porcello is on target to pass 200 IP in a season for the first time in his career. His ability to go deeper into ballgames has also left Detroit’s shaky bullpen (ERA 4.36) less exposed and provided it with some much-needed rest.
Reflecting on Porcello’s career year beckons the question: How has he jumped from mediocre MLB pitcher to very good MLB pitcher in 2014?
One thing is for certain, it is not through striking hitters out. Unlike some of his Tigers brethren (e.g. Max Scherzer), Porcello does not possess the arm to collect punch-outs en masse. With a heater averaging 92 mph, the righty needs to retire opposing hitters through other methods. Inducing ground-ball outs via his sinker has been his modus operandi so far in his career. Porcello’s dependency on this pitch is highlighted by his Percentage Pitch Usage stats from his rookie year (courtesy of Brooks Baseball). They reveal that he threw sinkers 60.01 percent of the time during that season.
However, the 2014 version of Porcello is far less reliant on his sinker. He still benefits from balls hit on the ground—19 double plays (second in AL) and a 48.2 ground-ball percentage attest to that—but he has improved his secondary pitches, enabling him to use them more often to record outs.
One particularly noticeable difference has been the increased use of his curveball. He now throws it roughly five times more often than he did back in 2010-2011.
According to Brooks Baseball, his curve is getting more horizontal movement (7.34 inches) than at any other time in his career. His hook is proving to be effective too as opponents have hit only .203 off it in 2014.
His changeup has been even more impressive. Opponents are hitting only .178, which is a 53-point decrease on last year. According to Fangraphs, his changeup RAR (Runs Saved Against Replacement) of 8.0 (third in AL) also demonstrates its effectiveness.
The sinker remains Porcello’s bread-and-butter pitch. And with the improvement of his complement pitches, it may now be even more effective. According to manager Brad Ausmus, per WXYZ Radio (subscription required), Porcello is at his best when he locates his sinker in the bottom half of the strike zone:
When Rick is getting groundball outs he’s doing the one thing right that he has to do—he’s keeping the sinker down in the strike zone. When the sinker’s down it’s got more depth to it, more movement and guys just get on top of the ball and it ends up on the ground.
After struggling against left-handed batters throughout his career, Porcello’s improvements have also helped him have more success against them this year. With lefties currently hitting only .240, this is the first year since his rookie season that he has held them to under a .300 clip.
Porcello’s enhanced game shows how he has matured as a pitcher this year. Owning three above-average pitches demonstrates his evolution from a sinkerball pitcher into a pitcher possessing a sinkerball—and a good one at that. His morphing into a more complete pitcher may yet catapult him to a 20-win season and postseason success for Detroit.
Although the 25-year-old has not started a playoff game since 2011, his performances this year will leave Brad Ausmus with no choice but to install him into the postseason rotation. Any questions about whether he can perform against elite teams have already been answered. Against Detroit’s likely opponents in October—Oakland, Anaheim and Baltimore—Porcello is 5-0 with a 1.31 ERA in five starts this season.
With Detroit failing to convert its postseason opportunities the past three years, it is still desperately seeking the right formula to go all the way. With Porcello now pitching at a higher level, it may be one step closer to breaking its three-decade drought.
Unless otherwise stated, stats in this article are courtesy of mlb.com
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