Porcello is coming off a solid and career best year where he had a 93 FIP -. As far as overall strikeouts, walks, and homers, he was virtually the same in 2011 as he was in 2012. Once considered one of the best prospects in baseball, he has developed into what seems like a slightly above average pitcher with a reputation for being worse. In fact, he has been linked to several teams in trades and it was suggested that the Tigers no longer wanted Porcello after they re-signed Anibal Sanchez.
As usual, the Pitch F/X info on Porcello is scattered and full of misclassifications. Fangraphs has him throwing a 91.3 MPH 4-seamer, no sinkers, and a moving fastball just under 91 MPH. Brooks Baseball has him throwing 92.33 MPH on his fastball, with a sinker he throws 52% of the time at 91.35 MPH. I think the problem Fangraphs/Baseball Cube (who just pull their data directly from the GameDay/MLB source without editing it) data is the way the fastballs have been inconsistently identified. Over the last three years, Porcello has thrown one of the fastballs basically the same amount of time (66.83 %, 66.65 %, 67.58 %), but, as we see in the Baseball Cube data, the 2011 data says he threw the regular fastball and 2-seamer at different percentages each year, especially in 2011 where the 4-seam fastball got a slight uptick in usage. However, this doesn’t explain the velocity dip in 2011 and velocity increase in 2012, as both were down in 2011 and both were up in 2012. So it does seem that Porcello added velocity in 2012, as Brooks Baseball agrees, having him at 93.5 MPH on his 4-seam fastball. This moves him from an averagish velocity pitcher to a clearly above average rotation arm, which is quite a jump if you believe the data. At age 24 (23 during the season), it isn’t unbelievable that he has added velocity. Interestingly, according to FanGraphs, his fastball was just .1 MPH slower than King Felix’ in 2012 on average. In his first outing of Spring Training, he was reportedly sitting around 92 MPH, maxing out at 94 MPH.
Porcello is known as a sinker baller, so I am going to just call the “2-seamer” a sinker, like Brooks does. He seems to fall under the sinker/slider category, as nearly 85 % of his pitchers were either fastballs (whether 4-seamer, 2-seamer, or sinker) or sliders. Even with a slight dip in 2012, the slider has been a better swing and miss pitch than his fastball (which hovers just around 5 % in swinging strike percentage, which is very low) and before 2012, was his best swing and miss pitch. With that said, the slider still doesn’t get good grades when compared to other sliders. There also appears to be a classification sometimes between his changeup and slider. However, both also saw a substantial velocity jump in 2012. He has the package (low strikeouts, lot of fastball/sinkers, high GB rate) of an innings eater that usually sits in the middle of a rotation, but he has never thrown 200 innings and has thrown just over 180 innings once (2011). This could be just because of his young age and the Tigers being cautious with him and not letting him go deep into games, but as I think we will see below, there are other explanations as well.
Why he keeps underperforming his DIPs is an interesting question, and I think a lot of it, this is especially easy to point out in 2012 with Cabrera and Fielder manning the corners (not to mention Delmon Young), has to do with defense. He does have a high batting average on balls in play, about .022 points higher than league average. Defense could explain this, but batted ball data may help us in this regard.
This uses MLB AM tags, but we can’t do it any other way, but here is the average batted ball distance on non bunts ranked by best pitch:
So the slider, as mentioned above, seems to be his worst pitch, while his sinker seems to be his best pitch, at least at limiting hard contact. His overall batted ball distance is actually a little below average, which again makes me think that the high BABIP has more to do with defense than it does with Porcello giving up hard contact.
If you look at the Tigers since 2009, they are just below average in UZR, about average in range, and one slot above average when it comes to arms. DRS also has them at about average. Obviously if you look at just 2012, the Tigers were one of the worst defensive teams in baseball. However, with the larger sample size suggesting that they were roughly average, it is hard to blame all of Porcello’s problems on defense. He is about 3% worse at leaving runners on base than an average pitcher in the Majors. This is usually considered luck or randomness, but it is a large sample size now, so maybe there is something there. Pitchers usually don’t lose any velocity when they have to work with runners on base, but in 2012, MLB pitchers had a 3.77 kwERA with no runners on and a 4.27 kwERA with runners on. Porcello on the other hand, has a 4.32 kwERA with no runners on, and a 4.95 kwERA with runners on. The difference isn’t large, but the .13 difference could explain the 3 % difference. The home run rate is about the same for Porcello, with about a .11 % difference (that is worse) with runners on base.
Porcello is also known as a guy who loses velocity as he gets deeper into games, and he clearly struggles as the game goes along. The average starter in the Majors has a .731 OPS against in the first 3 innings (102 tOPS +), and then a .749 OPS in innings 4-6 (106 tOPS +). Porcello has a OPS against of .701 (83 tOPS +) in the first 3 innings, then a .848 OPS against (120 tOPS +) in innings 4-6. Obviously two quick theories come to mind, neither which is unverifiable, but aren’t exactly easily testable either. First, the mediocre breaking and off-speed pitches listed above make him predictable as he gets through the order. That is, he is able to get by with a good sinker/fastball combination the first time he goes through the order, but he can’t fool the hitters with it the second time of through the order, and either has to keep going back to them and watching them get hit this time, or relying on his worse pitches more, that get hit because they are worse pitches. The second option is that he really is just losing velocity going deep into games.
Porcello has really large platoon splits. The average right-handed starter has a .044 OPS platoon difference. Porcello has a .117 OPS difference for for his career. One explanation could just be the lack of good breaking pitches to keep lefties off balance.But there are other options as well.
As a general rule, pitchers with release points that are far out usually have large platoon splits, what about Porcello’s release point?
As you can see, he uses his height to release the ball high and he releases the ball pretty far out on average, getting up to 3 feet away from his body. This is quite a bit out. It is not as far out as Chris Sale, who also has gigantic platoon splits:
The difference between the two is that (well obviously Sale is a lefty) Sale drops down and throws more sidearm. Porcello releases the ball from a high 3/4 delivery. Hector Noesi of the Mariners provides even a better example, as he is even worse against lefties, even though he throws harder. He has a little bit of a lower delivery, and he is also more out
While the release point clearly plays a part, pitch location does as well. When looking at his frequency charts, I was surprised by how much he *didn’t* keep the ball low. He is a sinker baller, yet throws the ball in the lower third of the zone just 96.7 % of the time compared to the right-handed pitchers according to Brooks Baseball’s heat maps. Compare this to other sinker ballers Jutin Masterson (108.55 %) or Henderson Alvarez (125.11 %). The inability (or choice) to keep the ball low is perhaps Porcello’s weirdest trait.
Porcello clearly works arm side, that is away from lefties and into righties on average. When you non normalize the maps, you see that his most frequent locations against lefties is middle, middle away, and low and away in the strike zone. This trend is especially true when you look at his off-speed stuff. However, as expected, his “breaking stuff” sweeps, and is mostly put in the lower left-handed batters box side. Also, as expected, he throws his “breaking stuff” (curve/slider) much more to righties than he does to lefties and his “offspeed stuff” (his change) much more to lefties than righties (he doesn’t hardly throw his change to righties at all).
As a case study, I wanted to see how he has pitched against Carlos Santana, a switch hitter who is obviously batting lefty against Porcello, whom he has met 25 times since 2010. Here is Santana’s spray chart from those appearances:
Clearly Santana has had success pulling the ball against Porcello, even though we have seen that he usually likes to keep the ball away from lefties. The plate appearances between the two have been no different as Porcello has been throwing a lot sinkers away that Santana has been swinging at:
The sinker is the pitch he has been throwing the most against Santana, with the changeup being the 2nd most often (and the 4 seamer being the 3rd most often). Out of the 45 sinkers he has thrown, he hasn’t gotten a single whiff, and just one of the 23 fastballs he has thrown to Santana has lead to a whiff. Santana has a fair amount of swing and miss in his game, so this isn’t a small deal. The change has been a little more effective, getting some whiffs, and not being turned into any hits or even a ball hit very hard. As you can see using the picture below, he has been doing a good job of keeping the change away from him consistently
Back to a more general look, what does sequencing tell us? This may also unlock, other than the fact that his main pitch, his sinker, doesn’t get hardly any whiffs, why he doesn’t strikeout many hitters as well.
Against lefties, he uses sinkers a lot to begin the count, but when ahead or with 2 strikes, this drops to about a 3rd of the time. His change remains at a pretty steady rate of about 20% of the time against lefties regardless of the count. What he goes to more is the slider (maybe a touch more with the curve) and surprisingly, the 4-seam fastball. Most pitchers throw 4-seamers less when they get to 2 strikes or are ahead in general, but not this sinker baller. This pitch he uses a little bit differently than his sinker, throwing it more in the glove side and up portion of the strike zone, that is up and in to lefties (or up and away from righties, as he doesn’t throw it in different locations based on platoons. When breaking down just 4-seamers thrown to lefties and trying to look at results, we start to wade into some sample size issues, but whether looking at TAV, SLG, or ISO, he has really struggled on the 4-seamers that he has thrown up and in to lefties. I guess this isn’t particularly surprising, since he has roughly an average fastball, maybe a tick better, very binary tendencies with the pitch, and he is throwing up in the happy zone of hitters that have the platoon advantage. Unfortunately, even though he is keeping the change away, it isn’t fairing too much better against left-handed pitchers as far as results. This leads me to believe, unless I am just missing something, that his release point being a tad further out than what you see in most pitchers is allowing hitters to see the ball a little bit better from the left-hand side.
When you combine all his pitches, Porcello is very good (in about the top 25% of starting pitchers or so since the Pitch F/X era started) at getting horizontal movement. He doesn’t get much vertical movement though. As we have noted above, he doesn’t have breaking pitches to strike hitters out, but he has solid velocity on his fastball and sinker, both of which are good at limiting hard contact. He doesn’t locate low as well as you would want, but he locates his breaking pitches glove side, and his off-speed arm side, keeping pitches away from lefties before coming in with the hard stuff. This is a package of a solid starter. Yet, Porcello has statistically been okay, but not as good as you would expect, and just can’t get out lefties or work deep into games. So where does this leave us?
The Tigers seem to be letting Drew Smyly and Porcello fight for the 5th starter job. There is at least a theoretical chance that Porcello won’t make the 5 man rotation. Where does this leave him? Porcello has been in quite a bit of trade rumors lately, and he could go somewhere that needs a starter, especially one that needs a back of the rotation starter. Porcello can fill that role nicely. He just isn’t an average starter currently, and considering all the data we have look at, there isn’t much of a reason to think he will be unless he just keeps adding velocity. Another more radical solution could be moving to the bullpen. I have suggested in the past that sinker/slider guys need to be placed in the bullpen to succeed. You could control who Porcello faces more often and have him face less lefties. Obviously he would throw less innings, but he wasn’t really an innings eater to start with, and they would be better innings and you would still have him for rotation depth if needed. He did appear as a reliever in the playoffs twice, but threw just 8 pitches, so it isn’t wise to try to pull anything from that. However, there is one really major flaw to this plan, money.
As R.J. Anderson recently wrote, “Porcello’s salary is increasing at a quicker rate than his production”. So a team interested in Porcello may actually not have to give up to what is equal to the talent and years of control, as his salary will be higher than he probably deserves (according to market rates or normal arbitration year rates for pitchers with his rate numbers). However, the team acquiring Porcello will have to be able to eat extra money. At 5.1 million, even with the kind of starter he is now, it isn’t a bad salary. For a reliever, that is probably too much (though some teams still pour a lot of money into their bullpen, especially for closers), especially since he will continue to get raises through arbitration. Moving him to the bullpen would be an expensive experiment, and obviously a team trading for Porcello wouldn’t move him to the bullpen, as that would be a waste of resources.
My expectation is that Porcello will still make the Tigers’ rotation. I could obviously be wrong, but I would not be surprised to see Porcello pitch in the 5 spot all year for the Tigers. Whether he continues to take steps forward is to be seen, as there is decent stuff and he is able to throw strikes, the thing will be consistency and whether or not he can repeat his delivery, keep his fastball late in the game, and work effectively with runners on base. Obviously no one is going to rebuild his delivery, and even though he isn’t extremely tall (at 6-5), it often takes taller pitchers longer to gain control of their deliveries. There is potential there, but there are a lot of flaws that seem to stem from his delivery as well.