Detroit Tigers starter Rick Porcello took the express route to the big leagues. The New Jersey prep product, given a $7 million major league contract as the 27th pick in the 2007 draft, tossed all of 125 innings in the High-A Florida State League in 2008 before reaching Detroit the following year. Porcello was impressive in the FSL (5.2 K/9, 2.4 BB/9, 64.1 GB%, 3.83 FIP), but keeping his head above water in the show while not yet being able to buy a cold one at the local watering hole figured to be a monumental task. With scarce pro experience, Porcello rode his sinker for all its worth as a rookie. He induced grounders and limited the walks enough to turn in a quality season. In 2010, however, Porcello has taken a step backward.
Last season, Porcello struck out 4.69 batters per nine innings, walked 2.74 per nine and had a 54.2% ground ball rate. His expected FIP (xFIP), based on his rate of K’s, walks and a normalized home run per fly ball rate, was 4.32. This year, Porcello’s got 4.5 K/9, 2.76 BB/9 and a 49.6 GB%. Fewer whiffs and grounders means his xFIP has climbed to 4.76. His ERA is a full run higher, due to a .333 batting average on balls in play (.281 in ’09) and a strand rate that has fallen from 75.5% in ’09 to 62.4% in 2010.
Given Rick’s ground ball tendencies (grounders have a higher BABIP than fly balls), it’s not surprising that his BABIP has risen. But that .333 mark is likely indicative of some inauspicious bounces — his BABIP on grounders (.238) is 10 points higher than the AL average, and his BABIP on fly balls (.174) is nearly 40 points higher than the Junior Circuit average. Porcello has legitimately struggled with runners on base (5.41 xFIP), particularly with his control. With the bases empty, he has walked 4.5% of batters faced (7.7% AL average). With men on, he’s issuing a free pass 9.9% of the time (9.3% AL average). His K rate is below-average in both situations.
According to Pitch F/X data from TexasLeaguers.com, Porcello is going to his fastball slightly less often this year. We’re speaking in relative terms, though, as hitters are still getting a heater more than 70% of the time. Porcello has also thrown his slider more at the expense of his curveball. He’s getting a lot of strikes with his fastball, but that’s about the only kind thing that can be said. His secondary stuff is missing the mark and garnering few whiffs, and the whiff rate on the fastball has fallen as well:
Using Pitch F/X data from Joe Lefkowitz’s website, I found Porcello’s batted ball distribution by pitch type. The ground ball rate on his fastball has is 53.4%. That’s still well above the 42% overall average for four-seamers and two-seamers, but down from his 57.3% mark last year. He’s also getting fewer grounders with his changeup (53.9% in ’09, 43.5% in 2010, 50% MLB average). Rick’s getting a few more grounders with his slider (25% in ’09, 35.4% in 2010), but that’s still below the 45% big league average. The sample size for curveballs is too tiny to matter.
Porcello’s slugging percentage on contact with his fastball has increased from .463 in 2009 to .500 this season. It’s likely that number is influenced by the aforementioned BABIP increase, and that 2010 total is under the .540 MLB average regardless. His slider’s still getting slaughtered, if not quite as much (.714 last year, .604 in 2010, .505 MLB average), while his changeup has been about average in terms of SLGCON this season (.500 in ’09, .457 in 2010, .452 MLB average).
Perhaps Porcello will one day flourish as an ace-caliber starter — he’s certainly got time on his side. But at the moment, he’s got a fastball that he can throw for strikes and little else. One has to wonder if the 21-year-old would have been better off plying his trade in the minors, developing his secondary stuff, than burning two years of cheap service time in the majors.