It’s really easy to forget that Rick Porcello is a mere 23 years old because it feels like he’s been around forever. Such is life when you’re called up to the majors at 20 years old a la Jeremy Bonderman (seriously, by 2006, it felt like he was a grizzled veteran at age 23). While the similarities between Bonderman and Porcello aren’t abundant, Bonderman posted what’s generally considered his breakout (and best) season in 2006, his fourth year in the majors, at the age of 23. Rick Porcello is entering his 4th season at age 23, and it’s not out of the realm of possibility that he could finally start tapping into the potential that he still possesses.
What kind of potential, you ask? Well, despite being the 27th player off the board in the 2007 draft, he was regarded as the top pitcher in his high school class – a top ten talent who dropped into Detroit’s lap because Scott Boras and co. weren’t going to give anyone a discount. The Tigers thought they had a future ace on their hands. He pitched well at Lakeland in 2008, but the Tigers promoted (some would say rushed) him to the majors in 2009. After a poor start that had many thinking he’d be sent to the minors, he posted an excellent May that solidified his spot in the rotation and, after an inconsistent summer, posted an ERA just over three in August and September, culminating in his strong start in the one-game playoff at Minnesota. He was essentially the second best pitcher for a near-playoff team down the stretch.
However, Porcello’s 2009 was heavy on luck and not so much on skill – in fact, despite posting worse numbers up front in 2010 and 2011, his 2009 was his worst season peripherally and he’s improved his peripheral numbers every year since while keeping his ground ball rate north of 50%. Porcello showed flashes of what he could still become last postseason, where he posted a K/BB ratio of 11/2 in his two starts (12.2 innings). He was touching 93-94 on the radar gun. Though his ERA was still a bit high, Porcello looked a whole lot closer to the guy the Tigers thought they were drafting a little over four years ago. The fact that he began working out earlier this offseason in an attempt to find that low-to-mid 90s velocity earlier in the season should only make fans more encouraged about the possibility of a big step forward for Porcello in 2012. When Baseball Prospectus’s Kevin Goldstein ranked the Tigers’ best players under the age of 25, Porcello was still very high on the list – without violating the sanctity of the paywall, he wrote, “Porcello is still going to get better, and when he’s good five years from now and still just 27 years old, you’ll be sorry you wrote him off.”
What he needs to work on
Porcello was never expected to be a strikeout artist, but at the same time, it would be nice to see his strikeout rate climb a bit higher. 2011 was an improvement as opposed to 2010 (his K/9 jumped to 5.14 from a poor 4.65 in 2010) but it would still be nice to see it climb a bit closer to the 5.5 range. Velocity is also worth mentioning – Porcello should ideally sit comfortably in the 90-92 range, but it’s worth raising eyebrows if he comes into April throwing in the high 80s as he did last year. His new conditioning program will hopefully alleviate such concerns.
What he needs to do to improve
One area in which comparisons between Porcello and Bonderman are warranted – both have struggled mightily in getting lefties out consistently. If Porcello ever wants to become the #2 starter he still can be, he needs to find a way to do that. That could come with a more effective cut fastball – I’m not saying Porcello needs to become Roy Halladay, but lefties had a 20% line drive rate against Porcello last year. He needs to turn some of those into either routine flyouts or ground balls. A few more Ks wouldn’t hurt either.
What he will do
I’m not ready to project a sub-4 ERA for Porcello, but I see positive steps this year. Most of the projections put his ERA between 4.20 and 4.40, and I’m willing to take the middle ground on that. Porcello’s LOB% hasn’t been totally kind to him the last two years, so we’ll see if he can settle it around 70%. All told, I’d expect a drop in ERA and WHIP, and while he won’t surpass his rookie year in terms of his surface numbers, it could very well be his best year since.
Walkoff Woodward Bubblegum Card Prediction (I’m not Doc, I don’t know how to do tables):
IP 195, K 118, BB 48, 15-9, 4.34 ERA