Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Rick Porcello should not rhyme with poor fellow

The Detroit Tigers have never had a love affair with Rick Porcello. He does not strike guys out like Verlander. He does not have plus stuff. His name comes up often in trade rumors. He is a pitcher that does not satisfy a general manager trying to win it all. And yet, Rick Porcello is probably as good a fit in Detroit as just about any other fourth or fifth starter you can find out there.

After spending quite a bit of time looking at Rick Porcello's statistics, it is easy to get wrapped up in the meh. He has a lifetime ERA+ of 95 when 100 is considered league average. His figures in that statistic over the last four years have been thus: 83, 85, 93, 97. A bunch of years not to get overly excited about. But at least they show progress.

His career WHIP of 1.389 also leaves you with a distinct bland feeling as does his career strikeout rate of 5.4 to go with the 10.2 hits per nine he has given up for his career.

But again, if you think of him as a fourth or fifth starter and think of the competition of his own division, you put him side by side with the likes of Paulino in Chicago, Carrasco in Cleveland, Davis in Kansas City or Pelfrey of the Twins and you would take him over any of them, right?

But there is more. He has pitched for five full seasons now and is only now entering his year 25 year old season. He has been durable all five of those seasons. And, he is getting better and might even be on the cusp of being a pretty good pitcher.

Let's look at his FIP over the last four years in progression: 4.31, 4.06, 3.91, 3.53. Now his xFIP: 4.24, 4.02, 3.89 and 3.19. How about his RA9-WAR: 0.6, 1.1, 1.1, 2.2. There is definite improvement in all of those numbers.

And consider the fact that he is an extreme ground ball pitcher, averaging 2.35 ground balls per fly ball over the last two years. What infield has he had for most of his career. We are not talking rangy guys in Peralta, Fielder, Cabrera and even Infante has seen his range reduced over the past three years. And before Infante was a revolving door of second basemen, some converted willy-nilly from the outfield.

Now think of a ground ball pitcher pitching to an infield of Ian Kinsler, Jose Iglesias, Cabrera back to first where he belongs and Nick Castellanos, who has to be better than Cabrera was at third last year. More of those ground balls should be cleaned up in 2014.

But it is not only the infield that gives some optimism. He really is becoming a better pitcher. For the first couple of years, he was a fastball, slider guy. He then added in more change-ups. The slider has pretty much gone by the wayside (as it should have) and he is now throwing a curve 16.5% of the time and his change-up 15.5% of the time.

The curve as pretty much league average, but it was the first year he threw it a lot. The change was much better according to the value given that pitch by the stat sites. And the nuanced repertoire is making a difference.

His strikeouts per nine jumped last year to 7.2. While that is not world-beating by any means, it is still way above his 5.4 career average. And his strikeout to walk ratio went from his 2.37 career average to 3.38 in 2013. This is also shown in his swinging strike percentage. His career average is 7.1% and in 2013, that jumped to 8.6%. His percentage of pitches swung at out of the strike zone have increased nicely to 32.6 and 31.7%, an increase over his career average of 29.5%.

All of the numbers in the above paragraph show a four-year improvement curve where every year gets better in all those categories. In other words, he started as a 20 year old pitcher in the Major Leagues and is getting better at his craft and is in good shape going into his year 25 season. He is still incredibly young with more room to grow.

Rick Porcello might never be a great pitcher. But he is getting better. He has never been a real fan favorite or a front office favorite. But if you look at his durability, his improvement and the fact that he finally might have an infield suited to his skill-set, you should see that for what most teams have for depth in the fourth or fifth starter role, few seem as solid as Rick Porcello. And from what the numbers speak, he might even surprise a few people in 2014 and beyond.