Rick Porcello has had kind of a strange career. A first rounder out of high school by Detroit in 2007, he was rushed through the minor leagues, making the Tigers 2009 opening day roster after only 24 appearances, all at High-A Lakeland. He was impressive enough to be ranked #21 on Baseball America's top 100 prospect list before the 2009 season, and the Tigers, who move pitchers faster than any other organization, skipped the rest of his apprenticeship.
In the majors, Porcello had a very solid rookie year, throwing 170.2 innings with a 3.96 ERA as a 20 year old. Many of his underlying stats were less exceptional though, as he gave up 23 home runs, walked 52, and struck out only 89, translating to a mediocre 4.77 FIP. In the three years since, Porcello's ERA has been closer to what his 2009 stats predicted, as he has posted ERAs of 4.92, 4.75 and 4.59. In 2012, he led the American League in hits allowed, giving up 226 in 176.1 innings.
On the surface, these numbers indicate the Porcello hasn't developed. For whatever reason, whether it was that he was rushed in his development, or never developed the stuff to generate enough swings and misses, the right-hander has stalled out. The Tigers, who have arguably the American League's best starting rotation (with or without Porcello) are rumored to be looking to deal the ex-phenom for a closer. Jim Bowden of ESPN twittered that the Padres turned down offers for Huston Street or Luke Gregerson. That's quite a fall from his prospect height of only four years ago.
It's also incredibly short-sighted by both teams. It doesn't take digging too deep to discover that Porcello has been improving. Given that he only just turned 24 this off-season, he's a fair bet to continue to do so. Even if he doesn't though, he'd be a good pickup for another team - the biggest problem with Porcello's development has been the defense behind him.
Take a look:
Porcello still isn't a huge strikeout pitcher, but his rates have been improving significantly there. Meanwhile, his walk rate, in the high 2's his rookie year, has set in the low 2's ever since. His home run rate has fallen, in regular increments, every year. Giving all of those factors, indicating better pitching, why have his results been so much worse than his rookie year?
The final column there is a team statistic. Defensive efficiency measures the percentage of batted balls that are turned into outs. The first three years of Porcello's career, the Tigers had average-ish defenses. In his rookie year, Porcello got lucky, with an unsustainably low .277 BABIP. That, most directly, is why his ERA was so much better than his peripherals indicated. In 2012, the Tigers ranked near the bottom of the majors in defensive efficiency - not a surprise, if you take a quick look at their defense. Prince Fielder, Miguel Cabrera, Jhonny Peralta, Delmon Young, and Brennan Boesch all saw significant playing time in 2012, and all are bad defensive players. The first two, of course, are among the best hitters alive - it would be almost impossible for them to play such poor defense to make their hitting not worth it. Peralta, while not the elite hitter the other two are, is well above average for a shortstop. The last two? Well, they were two of the worst players in the game last year, and both have new homes in 2013.
The upshot is this - Rick Porcello had the worst batting average on balls in play of any major league pitcher in 2013. The next closest? His own teammate Max Scherzer, at .333, 11 points lower than Porcello's. When a pitcher strikes out as many batters as Scherzer or Justin Verlander, a crummy defense behind them makes less of a difference. While Porcello's strikeout rates have improved, defense simply matters more, because more balls are put into play. There's an extremely low chance he gets so unlucky on balls in play once again. He'll get better results if he pitches exactly as well as he did in 2012, a reasonable expectation is that he gives up 12-20 fewer hits.
Beyond that, Porcello is a fair bet to have better inputs in 2013 than 2012. It's easy to forget because he's now a four-year veteran, but 2012 was just his age-23 season. In broad terms, a 23-year old with a 3.91 FIP is worth getting excited about, because that's already a good pitcher. Even if he doesn't improve, he's a solid rotation piece as a league-average innings eater. If he does continue to improve, he's a borderline all-star. He's also been durable without over-used. He's made it to 170 (including his quick minor league stint in 2010) innings each season, but has never surpassed 200. These are all positive signs.
That's what makes the Padres (reported) rejection of a trade for him so foolish. They have a better defense than Detroit, posting a .716 defensive efficiency in 2012, good for 8th in the majors. They have a chance to acquire a 23-year old starter with two years of team control, who has been showing quantifiable improvements over a four year period, and all it would cost them is one of their two best relief pitchers, both of whom are 29. Holding onto Street, used to hold onto games that they're already winning when entering the 9th inning, in lieu of a pitcher who can help them have more leads going into the 9th inning, is the wrong way to build a roster.
The getting is good right now on Rick Porcello. His value may be as low as it will ever be, and the team that holds him has a perceived need elsewhere. The time is now to buy low.
Note: Table created by TABLEIZER!
Note: Table created by TABLEIZER!