Rick Porcello, Closer?

USA TODAY Sports

Tiger's Manager Jim Leyland casually mentioned that Rick Porcello could be an option for saves in Detroit this year. Andrew Ball tries to project how Porcello would perform if given the job.

This past Wednesday, Ray Guilfoyle wrote an article on some spring training news, including the Detroit Tigers' sudden interest in finding a new closer. It seems odd to me that Detroit spent the entire offseason supporting Bruce Rondon as their guy just to switch their stance early in the spring. Nevertheless, Ray's article contained a line that was truly interesting to me:

(Tigers') Manager Jim Leyland hinted that starter Rick Porcello could close.

Here you can see the actual quote from Leyland as told to Jason Beck:

For a minute, let's ignore the fact that the Tigers probably won't do this. Instead, let's attempt to figure out just how effective Rick Porcello the closer would be, and how the move would impact the Tigers.

Rick Porcello, Starting Pitcher

First, I think we need to establish just how good Porcello is in his current capacity. It seems like there's a popular misconception that Porcello is a below average starting pitcher, when, in fact, he has been slightly above average for his career. He owns a lifetime 107 ERA-, 100 FIP-, and a 98 xFIP-, and he is continually showing improvements. Over the last three seasons, his strikeout rate has (modestly) increased from 12.0%, to 13.3%, to 13.7%, and his groundball rate (53.2%) was 11th best among qualified starters last season. Porcello also generated the second highest rate of infield fly balls in the major leagues last season, and if you read Dave Cameron's piece on FanGraphs earlier this week you would know that infield flies get turned into outs 99.1% of the time, making them almost like extra strikeouts. Add the facts that Porcello will be 24 years-old this year (with over 690 innings pitched in the big leagues already), and that his average fastball velocity increased by almost 2 mph last year and you can see why I'm fairly high on Porcello this year, regardless of the role he fills.

Rick Porcello, Closer

Now to preface this section, I need to point out that this analysis should be classified as educated speculation because Porcello has never closed at any level. In general, relievers have a few distinct advantages over starting pitchers- they can exert greater effort over shorter periods of time allowing them to throw harder, and they can eliminate some of their weaker pitches. As I mentioned previously, Porcello's velocity increased last year, averaging 93.46 mph with the four-seam fastball and 92.53 mph with his sinker. Considering pitcher aging curves, we should expect Porcello's velocity to continue increasing, but how much would a move to the pen enhance the effect? The two most recent examples of a starter going to a reliever are Phil Hughes and Wade Davis. Hughes saw a jump form 91.85 mph as a starter up to 94.60 mph as a reliever, and Davis saw a similar increase, from 92.19 mph to 94.47 mph. I think that between natural progression and the "reliever bump", Porcello's average fastball velocity would be somewhere around 96 mph out of the bullpen. That, along with reduced need for his curveball (his weakest pitch by linear weights), should increase his strikeout rate. To answer how much the switch would increase his strikeout rate, let's compare Porcello again to some players that performed in both roles.

Name

Year

Role

K%

Year

Role

K%

Δ K% (Increase as RP)

Derek Lowe

2001

Reliever

20.3

2002

Starter

14.9

5.4

Danny Graves

2003

Starter

8.1

2003

Reliever

14.1

6.0

C.J. Wilson

2009

Reliever

26.0

2010

Starter

20.0

6.0

Wade Davis

2011

Starter

13.2

2012

Reliever

30.6

17.4

As you can see, the typical reliever saw about a 6% increase in strikeout rate moving to the bullpen, with Wade Davis' spike as an example of the best case scenario. I do actually think Porcello may best this number by a small amount, if only because of the glowing reports about him both as an amateur and as a prospect. So let's say he would strikeout 22.5% of the batters he faces as a closer.

Without putting the numbers up here, I can tell you that the pitchers in our (very) small sample had almost identical batted ball ratios in both roles. So, estimating 65 innings (safe number for a reliever), and then applying K%, BB%, batted ball data, and a modified version of FIP that includes IFF%, we can make a rough projection for Porcello. Doing so, Rick Porcello the closer's 2013 line would look something like this:

65 Innings Pitched, 3.21 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 66 H, 59 K, 15 BB, 7 Home Runs

Honestly, it's not as good as I anticipated it to be, but I have to keep in mind it's a rough model that doesn't fully take into account how well or poorly Porcello would adapt to a new role.

The biggest problem with making the move is that Porcello is most valuable to the Tigers as a starting pitcher, either in their rotation or as a trade chip. Furthermore, Porcello thinks of himself as a starter, stating, "I've said it before - I'm an established starter in the big leagues" when asked about his role with the team earlier this week. At age-24, he has the potential to pitch in the middle or possible even at the front of a rotation for years to come. Ultimately, the Tigers are probably better served by letting him continue to fill that role.

On the other hand, the motto of many baseball folks remains "Flags Fly Forever", and my projection for Porcello as a closer is better than any of the other internal options. Detroit also has Drew Smyly ready to step into Porcello's spot in the rotation, and the move also would allow Detroit to continue grooming Bruce Rondon as their closer of the future. Then, next year they would have the option of returning Porcello to a starting role like Phil Hughes did for the Yankees.

As I stated at the beginning of the article, I don't think the Tigers actually will, nor should they, make Rick Porcello their closer. Speculating on how good he could be in the role was done mostly out of curiosity, so I hope you all will leave your thoughts in the comments. And more importantly, I hope your take away is that Porcello is a good pitcher that is worth your attention in fantasy leagues this year.

For more information and insight on Porcello and all his teammates, check out SBNation's Bless You Boys.

You can follow me on twitter here.

You can check out my other writing at Fantasy Ninjas.

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