Game 24: Time to pay up for Porcello?
Tigers fans went into the season wondering if this was the last ride for the Tigers’ vaunted starting rotation as they knew it, because of Max Scherzer’s contract year.
One month into the season, it might be time to think about Rick Porcello in his next-to-last season before free agency, and wonder if there’s still time to buy in.
Yes, it’s early. That’s the point.
Historically, May is the month when we start talking about Porcello’s potential, because he keeps flashing it. With seven innings of four-hit, two-run ball Friday at Kansas City, he’s now 14-6 with a 3.13 ERA in 26 career starts in May, averaging six-plus innings per start. He hasn’t lost in May since 2012. He was just 1-0 with a 3.13 ERA last May, but he had more strikeouts (32) than innings pitched (31 2/3).
Compare that to the months before and afterward. Porcello is 9-12 with a 6.12 ERA for his career in April. Even if you take out the nine-run first inning from last season against the Angels, he’s 9-11 with a 5.57 ERA. In June, he’s 9-12 with a 5.30 ERA.
“I have no idea [why],” Porcello shrugged. “I wish I could tell you. I don’t have an explanation for it.”
He’s now 4-1 with a 3.66 ERA, the first four-game winner on the Tigers staff, and he has just started into what is historically the best month of his career. His performance Friday night reflects why his season so far is not just a fluke.
He threw first-pitch strikes to his first nine batters and 20 out of 25 Royals batters. He rebounded from Billy Butler’s fourth-inning solo homer by retiring the last 12 Royals he faced after that. He left Royals hitters talking highly about what they saw from him.
“He had a good sinker tonight,” Butler said. “He was on, there’s no doubt about that. His ball was moving, diving on us and getting a lot of ground balls. A lot of first-pitch strikes and that’s going to bode well for a sinkerball guy. Give him a lead and he can go to work.”
He has allowed just four walks in 32 innings, producing a ratio of 1.13 walks per nine innings that ranks second-lowest among American League starters behind only David Price. He owns a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 5.50 that ranks fourth in the AL behind Price, Masahiro Tanaka and Felix Hernandez.
He’s throwing about two-thirds of his pitches for strikes, easily the best ratio of his career, and he’s getting the bump from swings and misses. His percentage of pitches swung at is up, and his contact rate is down.
When he gets ahead in counts, he’s becoming more than a sinkerball pitcher. He’s beginning to use his full repertoire — curveballs, sliders and all.
He’s doing this at the age of 25. He’s on track to hit the free-agent market before he turns 27, young enough to sign one major contract, then hit the market again for another one. A breakout season would put Porcello in a somewhat similar position Scherzer has now, only a year from free agency while delivering the best pitching of his career. Moreover, Porcello has no arm injury history to date.
To buy in on Porcello now would still require the Tigers to take a risk, one of the Tigers learned well with past contracts for Jeremy Bonderman, Nate Robertson and Dontrelle Willis. Sometimes it’s not a breakout, simply a repetition of the pattern. The age and the learning curve already made suggests the breakout might well be coming.
The Tigers have rarely done in-season extensions over the past eight years, so all this talk might well be moot. Then again, Porcello has the potential to be a unique case. We’ll see.