LAKELAND, Fla. — It’s hard to call Tigers pitcher Rick Porcello a veteran when you consider he just turned 23 in December.
But Porcello is entering his fourth full season in the big leagues.
“He’s a baby,” Tigers manager Jim Leyland said Thursday morning before the pitchers and catchers went to work. “He’s been around the circuit a little bit. He sees how good these guys are. He knows he’s good. He knows he can compete.
“He’s getting an air of confidence about him. (He) went through the good, went through the bad, went through a little in-between.
“Now he’s settled in. I think he’s going to be really good this year.”
In his rookie season of 2009, Porcello was really good with a 14-9 record and 3.96 ERA. His 14 victories were the most by a Tigers pitcher 20 years old or younger.
In his second year, he was 10-12 with a 4.92 ERA, which included a stint at Triple-A Toledo to work on some things that weren’t going well.
Porcello went 14-9 again with a 4.75 ERA last season, becoming the first major-league pitcher since Dwight Gooden to win 10 or more games in three straight seasons before turning 23. Gooden did so in four consecutive seasons (1984-87) with the New York Mets.
Porcello had an up-and-down season in 2011 but excelled in September, going 2-1 with a 3.55 ERA.
“I saw him relax a little bit,” Leyland said. “It’s just another sign of the maturity level. I saw him not panic when things weren’t exactly right. I saw him figure some things out when he wasn’t exactly right.
“Those are all steps in the right direction, and those are all steps that you have to take, in my opinion.”
Before taking those steps, Porcello was all over the place last year. He was 1-2 with a 4.25 ERA in April, 3-1 with a 3.52 ERA in May, 2-3 with a 6.97 ERA in June, 5-0 with a 3.06 ERA in July and 1-2 with a 6.82 ERA in August.
“A big goal of mine this year is to eliminate big peaks and valleys and just be consistent every fifth day,” Porcello said. “That’s the most important. Give us a chance to win.”
For a young player, particularly a young pitcher, it sometimes takes a while to figure out how to prepare for the long season, especially when that season is expected to last through October.
Porcello believes he has found a schedule that works for him.
“I started throwing earlier this year,” Porcello said. “I started about a month earlier, just playing catch, just trying to make sure that my arm strength is where it needs to be by the time April rolls around.
“Arm-wise, physically, that’s pretty much the main difference. Just did a little bit more shoulder-oriented exercises, making sure that that’s strong and I’m ready to go for the season.
“Going into the season just trying to basically pick up where I left off at the end of last year. I felt like the ball was coming out of my hand a lot better than it was at the beginning of the year, just want to continue that and keep building off of that.”
That early work seems to have paid off, at least in how Porcello feels in the early part of camp.
“As far as my arm goes and arm strength, this spring is as good as it’s ever felt, really,” Porcello said. “I feel strong. Just going to try and continue to keep it up.”
Porcello might be feeling strong, but he knows there’s room to improve in every area. He plans to work with former Tigers pitcher Kenny Rogers, who lasted 20 seasons in the majors before retiring in 2008. Rogers is in Lakeland after accepting the Tigers’ longstanding invitation to camp.
“I’m going to try and pick Kenny’s brain a little bit, especially his defensive abilities,” Porcello said. “He was a great fielder.
“Being able to make some of those plays can save you some outs, save you some runs.”
With the addition of Prince Fielder, the Tigers will certainly score their share of runs this season. Porcello said he was “shocked” and “happy” when he heard about the addition of Fielder signing.
“Obviously, when you can add a guy like that to an already pretty good offensive lineup, that’s pretty special,” Porcello said. “He’s got a big bat, obviously, and I’m looking forward to playing with him.”
Although adding Fielder gave everyone in the Tigers organization a boost of confidence, they might also get a boost from a more confident Porcello.
“Just trying to help us win,” Porcello said. “That’s the bottom line, is to go out there, be consistent and just give us a chance every fifth day when I’m out there.”