Rick Porcello will be just 24 years old in 2013, but it seems like he should be much older than that at this point. That's probably because the Tigers called him up all the way back in 2009 at the tender age of 20, after he had amassed all of 125 innings as a professional following his graduation from high school in 2007. Now, four seasons after his first big-league pitch, Porcello owns a career 94 ERA+ in just under 700 innings. He's still young, but despite this, it's easy to be disappointed with what he's been.
Porcello morphed into more of a ground ball pitcher than it was expected someone with his velocity would be, thanks to a preference for his sinking two-seamer. He's always had lofty hit rates, except for in his very first season. Normally, elite ground ball pitchers tend to have lower batting averages on balls in play, thanks in part to the weak contact they regularly induce, but Porcello has not seen this. Besides his first year in the majors, he's given up some pretty horrid lines on grounders.
In 2010, the league-average BABIP on grounders was .234. Porcello allowed a .245 BABIP on them, and a line six percent worse than the league-average because of it. In 2011, the league was at .237, while Porcello only managed .276, and allowed a line 38 percent worse than average on grounders. In 2012, despite the addition of Prince Fielder and his awful defense to the infield, Porcello actually saw some improvement, dropping to a .242 BABIP and just two percent worse than average line, whereas the league sat at a .238 BABIP.
Have the Tigers' defenses had a hand in Porcello's grounder issues? Maybe to a degree, in that they have caused his ground ball BABIP to be higher than expected, but it should be pointed out that Porcello is also consistently worse on fly balls and liners, too -- there's a very good chance that he just doesn't command the ball as well as he needs to given his approach, and it has resulted in contact that favors the hitter far too often.
R.J. Anderson picked up on this problem recently over at Baseball Prospectus through a different angle, talking about Porcello's secondary stuff as the real issue:
Fastball command is a key for any pitcher. In Porcello's case, locating either of his fastballs is his best attribute. He can throw his pitches down in the zone, inside to righties, inside to lefties, and even up in the zone. Unfortunately, the rest of Porcello's repertoire lags behind-in quality and in location. The changeup that scouts viewed as a work in progress a few years ago is now Porcello's best secondary offering, but that's not saying a whole lot, since he traded in his knockout curveball for an inconsistent slider.
I talked with Mark Anderson, who has familiarity with Porcello dating back to Porcello's prospect days, about the cause for the change. Anderson said he wasn't sure why Porcello traded his curve for a slider, but noted that it came during his developmental phase. Still, Anderson believes-as do I-that Porcello would benefit from adding a curve back to his arsenal, preferably of the 12-6 or 11-5 variety. The curve would give Porcello's repertoire a vertical aspect that it presently lacks. As is, batters can eliminate the strike zone above their belts. If a pitch does come in high, it's either Porcello's four-seamer or a mistake. A curveball would disguise Porcello's four-seamer and potentially increase its effectiveness.
Porcello's full repertoire just isn't, well, full enough. While PITCHf/x pitch values aren't predictive, they tell the same story, where Porcello just doesn't get enough consistent help from his secondary stuff. This, in turn, makes it difficult for his fastball to remain effective, as there's nothing to help set it up -- a two-seamer has less value as a weapon if it's the only one Porcello has.
What does this mean for fantasy players, though? Porcello still theoretically has room to grow as a pitcher, but with the Tigers' defense behind him, a little growth probably won't offset the problems presented. Porcello is most-intriguing as a fantasy pitcher if he is dealt, especially if it's to the National League where he can beat up on opposing pitchers, and, as a bonus, in a park that helps pitchers out. Right now, though, that's as much of a dream as Porcello figuring it all out.
On draft day, it's just not worth it to grab him as anything other than someone to dream on, even in a deep AL-only format, unless his situation changes. The fact the Tigers are thinking about replacing him in the rotation with Drew Smyly might seem like an odd waste of Porcello, but if they've lost faith in his ability to grow and develop beyond what he is, then that take is at least understandable.