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July 3, 2014

Fantasy Freestyle

Rick Porcello: Buy or Sell?

by Craig Goldstein

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Late last season, I took a look into what had changed with Rick Porcello that enabled him to strike out 19 batters over a two-game stretch, the highest two-game total in his career. That two game sample was just an impetus to look at a larger change in Porcello’s profile though—a marked increase in strikeout rate. With another impetus occurring on Tuesday night (Porcello’s 0 K, 0 BB CGSO), I thought it’d behoove us to take a look at Porcello’s season thus far in 2014.

The 2014 season has gone swimmingly for Porcello, as he’s posting an ERA of 3.12, which would be just the second time in his career that he recorded an ERA below 4.00, with the other being his rookie campaign that ended at 3.96. Do the peripherals line up with this improved production, though? The answer, almost overwhelmingly, is no. In fact, he’s reverted to being the pitcher he was in 2009-12, ditching the peripheral improvements he picked up in 2013.

His strikeout rate has dipped to 15 percent, four percentage points off of last year’s pace, and his walk rate hasn’t compensated by declining alongside it. He’s generating ground balls at a significantly lower pace (47.4 percent vs. 52.3 percent career) than ever before, which could play into his dramatically lower BABIP. While he has a career BABIP of .308, Porcello’s 2014 figure is sitting at .266. Part of this could be the additional fly balls, which carry a lower BABIP, but even then you’d expect HR/9 to rise, and it’s done the opposite. There’s also the matter of his skyrocketing infield-fly-ball rate, which has jumped 10 percentage points from last year and rests six percentage points above his career rate. Some pitchers (Barry Zito) had a bit of an ability to induce popups, but it doesn’t appear that Porcello is consistently one of those pitchers, so there’s some regression to be expected on that front as well. All of this is to say that while Porcello is halfway through his best season of results at the major league level, the things in his control, as measured by FIP, are actually sliding the wrong direction. This year’s mark of 3.78 is moderately worse than last year’s 3.56.

If you’re thinking that Miguel Cabrera’s shift from third base to first, combined with Nick Castellanos stepping in at the hot corner and Ian Kinsler slotting in at second helps Detroit’s infield defense and justifies the drop in BABIP, the sad news is that Detroit’s defensive efficiency has remained essentially static, going from .694 in 2013 to .693 in 2014. The noise on defensive data this early in the season is something to be aware of, as we generally prefer three-year samples to one-year samples, much less half of a season, but it’s also worth keeping in mind that Jose Iglesias hasn’t been at shortstop at all this year, and Castellanos was an outfielder at some point, so his defense isn’t likely to touch average at the moment. All of these numbers should be taken with a grain of salt, but the overriding lesson is that Detroit’s infield defense isn’t good enough to make up Porcello’s BABIP gap.

One area in which he’s made strides in 2014 is in his effectiveness against left-handed batters. Porcello has given up a career slash line of .299/.351/.450 against southpaws but has limited them to a .236/.291/.360 line thus far this season. The underlying stats continue to not support the trend though. He can barely strike LHBs out (11.9 percent) and he’s walking only marginally fewer LHBs than in 2013, so there are a ton more balls in play. He’s seen a 78-point reduction in BABIP from 2013 to 2014, despite the increase in balls in play, and a 10 percentage point(!) drop in his HR:FB ratio from 2013 to 2014. These are huge drops, and there is no discernable reason to assume they will continue at their current pace. Even if you think last year was an aberration, and he is seeing some regression, his BABIP against LHBs in 65 points below his career rate and his HR:FB is six percentage points off his career pace.

Whether he can keep up the smoke-an- mirrors act of allowing more balls in play and getting better results than he ever has before is an open question. These things do happen over the course of a full season. That said, if you had to make a bet, you’d be banking on him regressing toward his usual 4.00-plus ERA over the rest of the season, especially since nothing else has changed in his arsenal or pitch mix. If you have someone who is buying into the improvements Porcello made because he’s only 25, chat them up this weekend and see if you can sell with his value at its peak.

Craig Goldstein is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Craig's other articles. You can contact Craig by clicking here

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