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As a fan of Rick Porcello out of the draft and through his one season in the minor leagues, it shocked me as it did most others when he was promoted straight to the majors in 2009. While he managed quite well that season, for a 20-year-old with relatively scant professional experience, it only served to whet the appetites of fantasy owners. We all thought he could continue to build on his rookie season, learning to mix the strikeout ability he showed as a prep schooler with the ground-ball tendencies he’d developed as a professional. Unfortunately, 2009 has served as Porcello’s banner season to date, at least as far as surface stats go, as he posted his best full-season ERA (3.96) and WHIP (1.34). The underlying stats though, were not so exciting, as Porcello had failed to crack 14 percent with his strikeout rate, though he did keep the walks in check, never exceeding six percent after that initial season. So when Porcello received hype once again this offseason, I was wary. We’d heard it all before and been disappointed time and again. This season appears to be much of the same… or is it?

History is great and all of that, but fantasy is a “what have you done for me lately?” type of game, so it’s worth noting that Porcello is on pace to have his best season since his rookie campaign. What piqued my interest in Porcello were his two most recent starts, where he totaled 19 (!) strikeouts in 12 2/3 innings, walking only two batters. Those 19 strikeouts represent the most that Porcello has totaled over a two start span in his entire career. Upon further investigation, there wasn’t a drastic change for Porcello over his last two starts, as his release point was largely consistent with previous outings, and the pitch usage was inconsistent between the two starts. So while there might not be a trend to note that caused the change over these last two starts (at least as of yet), we can look at Porcello’s season as a whole and see what changes he’s made because while his ERA looks right in line with his previous seasons, 2013 represents a drastic departure from the norm in other aspects.

To begin with, Porcello’s strikeout rate jumped from a meager 13.7 percent in 2012 up to 19.1 percent (just shy of league average (19.8 percent) thus far in 2013, all while maintaining a relatively stable walk rate under six percent. He’s established a career high ground-ball rate of 55 percent while keeping his GB:FB ratio above 2.00 for the second straight year. The question on every fantasy owner’s mind, of course, is whether this newfound ability of Porcello’s is sustainable or merely a blip on the radar. We can’t be entirely sure, but it would seem that it is indeed sustainable. You see, Porcello’s slider was an awful, awful pitch for him in 2012, accruing a -17.32 run value (per Fangraphs) when he threw it around 16 percent of the time (per Brooks Baseball). Thus far in 2013, he’s dropped his usage of the pitch down to 6.5 percent where it’s been worth about .75 in value. Per 100 pitches, that’s a 4.25 swing in value on the pitch alone. In addition to cutting down on his slider usage, Porcello has taken to throwing his changeup to right-handed hitters instead, and it’s helped him raise his strikeout rate against righties from 14.4 percent in 2012 to 23.2 percent in 2013. What’s interesting about Porcello is less the raw data than it is the concept. He’s been forced to essentially shelve the pitch that’s supposed be hardest on right-handed hitters in favor the pitch that’s best suited to attack left-handed hitters. And it’s working.

It’s possible Porcello’s strikeout outburst these last two starts is the result of facing Seattle and Chicago (AL) in September… in fact it would be foolish not to take that into account. That said, Porcello has clearly reduced the usage of his worst pitch while finding the same side change up to be effective in inducing whiffs. He’s not an elite performer by any means, but he is posting the best FIP of his career, and with a full season of Jose Iglesias behind him in 2014, there’s reason to believe he could see his ERA come closer to matching his FIP going forward.

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Grasul
9/23
Can he find a way to get left handed hitters out consistently is the question.
TheArtfulDodger
9/23
It's a good question, but I'd argue that he might not need to to continue the run of success he's had this season. He's continued to struggle against lefties in 2013 despite all the progress he's made with his strikeout rate. If he can figure out lefties, we're talking an above-average starter in fantasy. If he can't? He's at least useful now that he is striking guys out.
Grasul
9/23
Sure, your article is a good one. My "fantasy" league is a splits based Dynasty card league where being exceptionally frontward is an exploitable liability, so I am sensitive about it. :)
TheArtfulDodger
9/23
Much appreciated! That sounds intense. In that type of environment I imagine he's a painful player to have a stake in, haha. Your sensitivity is well warranted.
sgrcts79
9/23
What's interesting about Porcello is still the fact that he's only 24. He's a few months older then Matt Harvey with more then 600 more IPs as a big leaguer. Its pretty much unarguable the Tigers rushed the hell out of him, but the big question is did they stunt his development so much he's a finished product? I think the answer here clearly is no. I'm all in for 2014 and bet I see another slight uptick in K's, and him using that curve even more to help him figure out lefties. If he can improve vs lefties enough, I personally think he comes closer to being a #2 then anyone is thinking for him right now. ESPECIALLY if Iglesias is his SS for all season next year. In 2015, provided he still is on the Tigers, and they finally are rid of Victor Martinez and can really improve their infield defense, he's going to REALLY take off.
TheArtfulDodger
9/23
I agree that his age bodes well for him and that he is by no means a finished product. But he also has shown that he's not exactly quick to adjust, so I would be surprised to see him maintain this level of performance (or thereabouts) for another year before incorporating some more changes. Defensive changes should absolutely be a boon to Porcello, especially given the number of GBs he generates. I would falter at putting a #2 on him, but obviously that's the boldness of your claim. It's not as farfetched as it seemed just six months ago, which is an indication of how far Porcello has come.
sgrcts79
9/23
Are pitchers ever really quick to adjust that aren't star level? Look at say his pitching teammate- Anibal Sanchez has long been known to have great stuff, but despite pitching at a great pitchers park in an easier league, is finally pitching like we thought he could at 29. Clearly that quick adjustment wasn't made when he was younger. Max Scherzer was around the same level pitcher for a few years, but finally really stepped it up this year, at least on the FIP level. He definitely was GRADUALLY getting better, but I wouldn't say he was quick to adjust. Matt Harvey- he was quick to adjust. Jose Fernandez, same. I think thats one of the things that give players ace upside. Without it, its just a gradual adjustment until you reach your ceiling.
TheArtfulDodger
9/23
I'd argue a lot of Sanchez's issues were injury related, and coming back from shoulder injuries does take time. I agree that Scherzer wasn't "quick to adjust" but he is a star level performer, so I'm not sure his adjustment is comparable to Porcello's. I don't disagree with your point in general though, so don't take it to mean that. I do think that most #2 starts *are* stars in their own right though, which is why I would hesitate in putting that type of label on Porcello. Additionally, guys like Sanchez and Scherzer had shown the ability to miss bats prior to their breakouts. And going back to Sanchez - he was the performer we (or at least I) thought he was in 2010 and 2011, before last year's trade. This season is remarkably similar to his 2011 season with a tad more strikeouts and half the home run rate. Obviously those matter, but I wouldn't bank on a run of sub 3 FIPs from him going forward. That's just my guess though.
zasxcdfv
9/23
His last three starts were against the White Sox (9 IP, 1 r, 5 k), the Mariners (6 IP 1 r, 10k), and White Sox (6.2, 2 r, 9 k). I feel like his opponents were a factor.
TheArtfulDodger
9/23
Agreed hence "It’s possible Porcello’s strikeout outburst these last two starts is the result of facing Seattle and Chicago (AL) in September… in fact it would be foolish not to take that into account." But that ignores the progress he's made on the year as a whole. The last two starts only served as the reason I investigated Porcello in the first place.
timjrohr
9/23
In my $260 auction (9 H, 9 P, 5 bench), 16-mixed 6x6 (K, QS) H2H league, I cobbled together my pitching staff by streaming, then keeping several of these guys: Patrick Corbin ($2 draft), Travis Wood ($5 FA), Rick Porcello ($5 FA), Corey Kluber ($5 FA), Martin Perez ($5 FA), Randall Delgado ($5 FA), Jennry Mejia ($5 FA). They helped get me into the championship round for the third straight year, but it's going to be hard to sort through them next spring. Any ridiculously-early reads on these (sorts of) guys' prospects for 2014? There's a reason why most of them were FAs; the question is whether they're keepable next year.
timjrohr
9/23
Oops. Jenrry Mejia. I always get confused on that first name.
TheArtfulDodger
9/23
I'll give you my initial reaction, but the topic itself might be prime for a Five to Watch style article for the offseason. Corbin is an obvious keeper. I'd try to trade Wood if I could but wouldn't keep. Drop Porcello. Keep Kluber. Drop Delgado, drop Mejia (innings are going to be an issue). Perez is the hardest choice for me. I think it would depend on the rest of my budget/team but I'd try to keep him. I think he'll exceed that value come next season. Sometimes the $ isn't there to do it though.
timjrohr
9/23
Thanks. That was kind of my thinking as well, particularly as to Corbin and Kluber. The rest... enh.
TheArtfulDodger
9/23
No problem. Yeah, I like Mejia's skillset but can't see them giving him a full season's workload and that's what you'd be paying for. Perez is a guy I believe in, but again, it depends on a lot of other factors.