In news that is surprising only if you missed the first three months of the season, Rick Porcello was optioned to Triple-A following Saturday night's ugly start. Porcello allowed four earned runs (five runs overall) and a pair of homers amongst eight hits in 5 1/3 innings against the Diamondbacks. For the month of June, Porcello has just seven strikeouts in 14 innings pitched, which is sadly an improvement on the rates he posted in May.
In late May, I covered Porcello's reliance on his two-seamer and the defense behind him, as he has strikeout stuff that he just doesn't utilize often:
Porcello has strikeout stuff — he has a four-seamer that tops out at 95 and that he throws at 92-93 consistently — but he sticks with the slower two-seamer for the sake of movement and to induce groundballs. That's why if you look at his average velocity, you'll see a pitcher that stays around 90 and is reliant on his defense for success, rather than one that is blowing away opponents like you would expect. Until Porcello takes matters into his own hands, and stops pitching with the same kind of strategy as a Jon Garland or a Tim Hudson, he's going to have these ups and downs.
The Tigers defense has improved a bit since that time, but they are still no better than average. Porcello is doing himself a disservice by relying on them so heavily. In last night's start, he threw 22 four-seamers, but generally kept the velocity down on them, averaging just 91.8 mph on it while topping out at 95. That's not much different than his normal two-seamer speed, which may be why he picked up zero swinging strikes on those offerings.
He had better movement on his four-seamer in his previous outing against the White Sox, but threw just 16 four-seamers there, and again, without a swinging strike. He had 11 in his June 3 start, with 55 two-seamers as well, and 27 of them against the Athletics on May 29, with just one swinging strike.
Porcello's four-seamer is a good pitch with movement and plenty of velocity behind it, but it appears, given how he's failed at picking up swinging strikes on it this year, that he's not fooling anyone with it, or blowing it by anyone with any kind of regularity. This trip back to Triple-A may be good for his development, as maybe he can learn how to effectively mix in the four-seamer (or let it become more of a staple in his repertoire than it currently is) so that he can pick up swinging strikes, or get strikeouts when he needs them, rather than relying on his defense and groundballs to do his work for him.
Also of note is that Porcello needs to use his slider more effectively—that four-seamer would be a more productive pitch for the young right-hander if opponents weren't sitting on it, knowing he had little else to throw except for his two fastballs. In the minors, without a race for the division in mind, he'll have the time and leeway to make that happen without costing his team in the standings.
There is no word yet on who is replacing him, though a little digging brings one name to the forefront. Enrique Gonzalez, who pitched in relief of Porcello for 3 2/3 innings last night, is an option, as he was a starter at Toledo prior to being recalled by the Tigers. According to his PECOTA projections, which look iffy even at the 90th percentile level, that may not be the best move, and is more along the lines of slapping a band aid on the open gash left by Porcello's demotion.
The Tigers won't need a fifth starter for 10 days though, so it's not surprising they haven't made an announcement about his replacement as of yet. We'll make an update when we hear about who is taking his slot in the rotation, but for now, sit tight.