Six years and $144 million. That was the contract that Max Scherzer reportedly turned down before the 2014 season. Instead, Scherzer took his $15.5 million to pitch this season, famously taking out a sizeable insurance policy on his ability to obtain a large contract this offseason. It’s probably safe to chalk this one up as a win for the insurer, given that Scherzer is in line to receive a huge contract as a free agent this winter.

Losing Scherzer will inevitably hurt, but the Tigers will still have David Price, Justin Verlander, an underrated Anibal Sanchez, and Rick Porcello in their rotation next season. Taking that a step further, Porcello’s “emergence” this season could play a role in the club’s willingness to part ways with one of their former Cy Young winners. If Porcello’s 2015 season resembles the one just past, the club will be in good shape.

The Porcello conundrum is clearly on the minds of fans, as exhibited by the question below from Daniel Rathman’s most recent chat:

John (Chicago): I am having a tough time reading Rick Porcello's year. On one hand he is only 26 and coming off big improvements in ERA and ERA+. On the other hand, he has had six full seasons where he is averaging 5.5 k/9. Was 2014 real improvement or an outlier, and should we expect a league average pitcher going forward or for him to build on those improvements?

Daniel Rathman: I think there is some legitimacy to the improvement, John, but don't see Porcello ever emerging as a frontline arm. He's a very solid pitcher in spite of the low strikeout rate, and I'd expect around a 3.75 ERA, splitting the difference between his past two years, but leaning toward 2014 as the Tigers continue to improve defensively with the addition of Gose. He's better than league average (which I'd put around a fourth starter), and more of a middle-to-low-end no. 3 starter for me.

If you’re a FIP aficionado like me, Porcello’s 2014 shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Sure, 2014 was his best season by ERA+ since his rookie year, but it was only two points better by FIP+ than his career average mark. From the standpoint of FIP, Porcello has outpitched his ERA every season from 2010 through 2013. This year was actually the first time that Porcello’s FIP and ERA were within half-run of one another, something that lends hope still-young pitcher’s future. It’s possible that changes in Porcello’s approach have been a key to unlocking his potential as not just a peripherals no. 2 starter but as a results no. 2 starter.

It’s generally accepted that there are things that pitchers have control over that aren’t accurately captured by FIP. This is why you see some pitchers with some significant variance between their ERA and FIP. There are a bunch of factors that FIP doesn’t take into account: controlling baserunners, team defense, batted ball distribution, just to name a few. We often on how these factors allow a pitcher to post better ERAs than his FIP would suggest, but for Porcello it has likely worked in the opposite fashion. But tweaks in his approach have helped his ERA fall more in line with those peripherals. More on that later. First, let’s take a look at some repertoire changes Porcello has made in recent seasons.

Back in the middle of the 2013 season, Eno Sarris chronicled some of the changes that Porcello had made to his arsenal. Sarris noted Porcello’s adoption of the curveball as a tool against left-handed hitters, something that is visible in these pitch usage charts:

The image above clearly show exactly what Sarris pointed out: Porcello adopted the curveball, largely at the expense of his slider. Once again, you can see this in the pitch usage charts:

This is especially interesting, not necessarily because of platoon splits—sliders generally have bigger platoon splits than curveballs—but simply because Porcello rarely used a breaking ball at all against lefties prior to 2013. From the beginning of his career through the end of the 2012 season, Porcello only used breaking balls 12 percent of the time against lefties. The problem there is that 88 percent of the time Porcello was throwing pitches that looked pretty similar to the batter:

Over the past two seasons, Porcello has mixed in the curve. This gives him another tool to keep opposing hitters off balance, especially because the curve has a very different look (in velocity and movement) than Porcello’s other pitches. He has thrown 24 percent breaking balls to lefties (20 percent curves) over the past two years. One of every four pitches giving hitters a significantly different look:

Lefties have seen their wOBA against him decline from .380 in 2012 to .353 in 2013 and finally .320 this year. From an overall performance perspective, this improvement against left-handed hitters has gone a long way to help Porcello get the most out of his talent.

Buried in Porcello’s quotes from Sarris’ piece is an interesting note about fastball usage. The pitcher mentioned that he had begun to throw a few four-seam fastballs up in the zone to keep hitters off balance. Since that interview, Porcello has continued to trade in sinkers for four-seamers. This too is visible in Porcello’s pitch usage charts:

This is particularly interesting because Porcello has made a name for himself as a groundball pitcher. Since 2012, his groundball rates have been 53, 55, and 49 percent. The outlier here is his 2014 season, the first time in the young pitcher’s career that his groundball rate was less than even. It was also the first time since Porcello’s rookie season that his BABIP dropped below .300. This is where we get back to the idea that Porcello’s repertoire changes might have helped him bring his ERA down to the levels of his FIP. It was always thought that Porcello would struggle to get his ERA to the levels of his FIP because of his groundball tendencies the resulting BABIP hit.

The other big change for Porcello, as far as his fastball selection goes, is that his approach to throwing four-seam fastballs has been tweaked as well. Originally, Porcello was using his four-seamer later in counts, hoping to keep hitters off balance. Last season, he used it to get ahead of opposing hitters. Take a look at his first pitch usage from 2012 through last year:













Back in 2012 Porcello was throwing sinkers on two out of every three first pitches he threw. No longer. The result? Porcello threw 65 percent first-pitch strikes in 2014, a career high. After the first pitch, Porcello continued to pound the zone more than he had in previous years, with his highest zone rate since 2010.

Some of these changes have been subtle, though the impacts are much bigger. Working in a curveball against lefties made him a four-pitch pitcher instead of a three-pitch one. Trading in sinkers for fastballs has also helped him throw more strikes. Getting ahead of opposing hitters, quashing some of the platoon advantage, even—at least for six months—lowering his BABIP: All markers of a pitcher taking a step forward. Losing Max Scherzer—if the Tigers do—is going to hurt. But gaining a better version of Rick Porcello in the past year must feel oh so good.

Thank you for reading

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He's improved, but his deficineces were tolerable when he was cheap, he's not cheap anymore and he basically imploded in Septmeber when they needed him most..tough to pay a guy who can't start a playoff game..

He may be as good as he's going to get, unless he can improve his change up..

He's a solid #4..on a good team..thats it.