Tigers' Porcello between ace and bust

BY foxsports • April 27, 2013

Leading up to the 2007 draft, current New York Mets sensation Matt Harvey wasn’t the consensus top high school pitcher in the country.

That distinction belonged to Rick Porcello of Seton Hall Prep in West Orange, N.J.

The two had become friends, owing to their common Northeast roots — Harvey is from Groton, Conn. — and letters of intent to pitch at the University of North Carolina. They played in the same showcases and tournaments. They even talked about rooming together in Chapel Hill.

“We struck up a friendship and hung out quite a bit,” Porcello recalled recently. “Once I got drafted, we parted ways and haven’t really talked.”

Porcello fell to the Tigers at No. 27 overall because of high bonus demands, and he passed up college to sign a $7 million major-league contract. The Angels selected Harvey in the third round. He asked for $2 million. The team offered $1 million. So he went to school.

The Tigers were in win-now mode when they fast-tracked Porcello to the majors in 2009 after he spent only one season in the minor leagues. Porcello debuted at 20, went 14-9 with a 3.96 ERA that season and finished third in American League Rookie of the Year voting.

The same year, Harvey struggled to a 5.40 ERA as a sophomore starter for the Tar Heels.

But that’s the thing about snapshots in baseball: They can deceive. Now in his fifth major-league season, Porcello has yet to replicate the success he enjoyed as a rookie. Harvey, 4-0 with a 1.54 ERA, is the talk of baseball and a potential All-Star.

Porcello has made 124 starts in the major leagues, Harvey only 15. The disparity reflects two truths: High school and college players can have very different paths, and the Tigers and Mets don’t share the same philosophy when it comes to nurturing starting pitchers.

Does that mean Harvey is destined to have a superior career to Porcello? No, even if it appears that way now. Both are 24 years old, separated in age by exactly three months. In any other context, we would call them very young men. But while the Mets probably feel they have their future (if not present) ace, the label on Porcello is somewhat more nebulous. He’s not an ace. He’s not a bust. He’s something in between.

So, what happened over the last two Saturdays — before MLB on FOX audiences across the country — was not such a huge surprise. There was the debacle in Anaheim, during which Porcello surrendered nine earned runs and left with only two out in the first inning. And there was Saturday’s home victory over Atlanta, during which he contributed a quality start (6 1/3 innings, three earned runs) and defeated a team that not long ago was the hottest in baseball.

“He can be as good as he wants to be,” said Braves catcher Gerald Laird, who played with Porcello over three seasons in Detroit. “Honestly, I really feel that way. The kid has a good work ethic. He’s got the stuff. It’s just … you know … taking a little bit longer to develop.

“If you look at it today, he can pitch anywhere from 89 to 94 (mph) with his fastball. He’s got the curve and the changeup, which is an above-average pitch. I just feel he’s still trying to find himself at times. He’s still young. He’s 24. He’s still learning. But everything’s there for him.”

Porcello has tried to simplify his repertoire this season, scuttling the slider-cutter hybrid that played tricks with his mechanics and wasn’t all that effective, anyway. He’s committed to the curveball again, like he was a lifetime ago at Seton Hall Prep.

“It’s been very strange — what breaking ball I’ve thrown, how it’s come along,” Porcello said, reflecting on the slider/curveball question. “I think I’ve gotten to a point where I’ve got to throw the one that’s more comfortable for me. That’s where I’m at now. That’s not to say I won’t start introducing a slider once I get a really good feel for my curveball in games.”

So, it’s open-ended, which may not be healthy. The slider/curveball uncertainty didn’t help Porcello last year.

“Last year, if one was good in the bullpen, that’s what we went with in the game,” Laird said. “If it wasn’t good in the game, then we went back to the other one. It’s one of those things he’s got to figure one of them out, master it, and live and die with it. Going back and forth like that, you’re never going to figure out who you are and what you’re going to do.”

One can’t help but wonder if the indecision would have been resolved with three years at UNC or more time in the minor leagues. If he had arrived in Detroit as a finished product, would Porcello possess the fully ripened out pitch that he lacks today? We’ll never know.

The Tigers have acknowledged that they rushed Porcello to the big leagues. As a rookie, he didn’t even have a serviceable breaking pitch. To his credit, Porcello doesn’t use that as a qualifier for his career numbers (49-44, 4.67 ERA).

“I’ve never really looked at my age or my path to the big leagues and used my young age as an excuse,” Porcello said. “When you get to the big leagues, nobody cares how old you are. Everybody’s competing, trying to play their best baseball. You’ve got to be prepared for that every day.

“I’m trying to be the best I can, as quickly as I can. It’s not like I say, ‘Well, I’m only 24; I’ve got time.’ I’m trying to be the best right now.”

To that end, some who have watched Porcello believe he’s not as far from his ceiling as the Anaheim-distorted 8.84 ERA would indicate. Because of his sinker, Porcello always will surrender more balls in play than the average pitcher. But whether through increased confidence in his curveball or the introduction of another pitch, he must find a way to generate more swings and misses. If Porcello had enough innings to qualify for the ERA title entering Saturday, he would have had the third-highest rate of contact among major-league starters, according to FanGraphs.com.

Yet, an overhaul isn’t necessary. Nineteen starters had lower rates of swinging strikes than Porcello in 2012, according to FanGraphs. One of them was Tim Hudson, the 199-game winner who watched Porcello pitch Saturday from the opposing dugout at Comerica Park.

“He’s got a great arm,” Hudson said. “Being a fellow sinkerball guy, I don’t rush it up there as quick as he does anymore. He’s got such a good sinker. He can pitch with that 90 percent of the time. If you just power the bottom of the zone, across the plate, you’re going to get outs. That’s one thing that’s beautiful about someone with a good power sinker.

“There’s times when I’m not throwing to corners. I’m throwing to the bottom of the zone – somewhere. I think that’s something where, the older he gets, the more he realizes he doesn’t have to be so fine. There are days when he’s able to dot the corners with that sinker, and those are the days he’s throwing shutouts.”

You know what? Over more than 150 professional games – majors and minors – Rick Porcello has thrown exactly zero shutouts. But Saturday, he performed in a way that convinced one of the game’s most respected pitchers that he had – or at least that he can. There’s a lesson in that. Porcello can’t get back the developmental years that his old friend enjoyed in Chapel Hill and the Mets’ farm system. He may never make up the deficit. But the guy who was better than Matt Harvey is still there.

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