October 13, 2011
ALCS Game Four: Cruz Control
Prior to Game Four, if you asked some well-meaning, in-tune baseball fans whether they considered Rick Porcello to be a good pitcher, I suspect most would have said no. Perhaps an overwhelming majority would have said no, and for good reason. Despite pitching in run-suppressing Comerica Park, Porcello has a career 94 ERA+, a generous figure given his career 87 FRA+. Porcello has never thrown 200 or more innings in a season, never struck out more than 104 batters, never posted a strikeout-to-walk ratio of more than 2.3, or accomplished any numerical feat that serves as an earmark for good pitching.
I suspect that the people who would have said yes, categorizing Porcello as a good pitcher, may have meant relative to his age. Remember, Porcello will not turn 23 years old until a couple of days after Christmas. Justin Verlander was cherub-faced when he led the Tigers to the 2006 World Series, and he was 23. To put Porcello’s age into further perspective: he is younger than a pair of Rookie of the Year candidates (Ivan Nova and Jeremy Hellickson—both 24) and six months older than baseball’s new wunderkind (Matt Moore). Porcello has the major-league experience of a veteran and the age of a baby. Still, Porcello’s 2011 season has not been a good one, even for a 22-year-old. Since 2006, 23 22-year-old pitchers have thrown 100-plus innings, and 17 finished with a better ERA+, 19 with a better strikeout per nine innings ratio, and eight with a better strikeout-to-walk ratio. Saying Porcello is a good pitcher would be inaccurate—with or without the age modifier.
If you asked those same well-meaning and in-tune baseball fans whether they thought Porcello was pitching well through five innings, I suspect all of them would have said yes. For those five innings, Game Four looked like Porcello’s coming out party. No team struck out less often or recorded hits more often than the Rangers during the regular season, yet Porcello had six strikeouts and allowed just two hits through those five innings. His four-seam fastball hit into the mid-90s, his two-seam fastball led to a number of ground outs, and his slider caused a few Rangers to swing and miss. Everything Porcello did seem to work.
Take the fifth inning. Porcello allowed Mike Napoli to single with one out, bringing up Nelson Cruz. There might be no more terrifying batter hitting seventh in a lineup than Cruz, so Porcello had every right to fist pump when he induced a comebacker that led to a half-inning-ending double play, but how that double play formed is almost as important. Porcello fielded the ball, spun, and threw an arch that appeared to be off-center and heading into center field, but then shortstop Jhonny Peralta stepped into view, plucked the ball from the air, touched second, and fired to first to complete the play. It seemed like Porcello could do no wrong, not on throws to home, not on throws to a base.
But, as we learned in the sixth inning, Porcello could still do wrong, and did. David Murphy led the inning off with a single, and then Ian Kinsler hit a double down the left-field line that plated Murphy thanks to a discombobulated Delmon Young. Kinsler would steal third, and Elvis Andrus would single to tie the game up. Just like that, the coming out party was over, and the ice cream cake had to be put back in the freezer. Porcello paid close attention to Andrus before hitting him on a throw over, thus allowing Andrus to scurry to second base. Michael Young would then single and the Rangers had the lead, and Porcello’s night on the mound was over.
Porcello is a photogenic lad, and FOX seemingly kept a camera on him throughout the rest of the game, including when Brandon Inge—who moments earlier hit the game-tying home run—hugged him in the dugout, or did at least until the game went into extra innings and the Rangers took the lead. From an unexpected hero to goat to almost a negligible afterthought in six innings, that’s how fast the outlook can change during a baseball game, and that’s why, try as you might, predicting what will happen in a single game is a fool’s errand. After this postseason, I suspect most well-meaning and in-tune baseball fans will agree with that.