Expectations were high for the 21-year-old Rick Porcello heading into this season. He had finished his first major league campaign with an ERA of 3.96, an impressive feat for a pitcher so young with so little professional experience. He had also closed out the season with a tantalizing look at what the future holds, striking out eight Twins in game No. 163 of the regular season while giving up just a pair of runs over 5 2/3 innings. The start to 2010 has been tougher than his debut.
The main differences between 2009 and 2010 for Porcello so far are his BABIP and his walk rate. One of those issues is Porcello's to deal with, while the other, at least in part, can be blamed on the defense behind him. The Tigers rank No. 19 in Defensive Efficiency this season, which has helped Porcello along to a .352 BABIP, well above the league average. In 2009 they were No. 9, and Porcello was at .281 -- some regression may have been expected, but that's about 50 points too much. It's not a surprise though, given his 55 percent ground-ball rate and nearly 2.0 G/F ratio.
As for the walks, they are a side effect of Porcello's attempts to induce ground balls. He throws a ton of pitches low and away, trying to keep the opposition from having anything to drive:
It has worked, insofar as his home run rate has dropped to 0.6 from 1.2, but opponents are swinging at just under 24 percent of pitches out of the zone against Porcello, so they aren't pulling the trigger often enough to help with the young hurler's whiff rate or his walks. They are, however, making contact at an above-average rate at his offerings within the strike zone, which is part of the reason that his BABIP is as high as it is.
While the walk rate wasn't an issue against the Dodgers on Sunday afternoon -- Porcello allowed two free passes over six innings -- the hits allowed were. Porcello scattered nine hits thanks to a porous Tigers defense, but was able to get out mostly unscathed thanks to some timely double plays. He lowered his ERA for the fourth start in a row, and has a 3.26 ERA over 19 1/3 innings pitched this month after a rough April, but he's still not pitching the way he should.
Porcello has strikeout stuff -- he has a four-seamer that tops out at 95 mph and that he throws at 92-93 consistently -- but he sticks with the slower two-seamer for the sake of movement and to induce ground balls. That's why, if you look at his average velocity, you'll see a pitcher who stays around 90 and is reliant on his defense for success, rather than one who is blowing away opponents like you would expect. Until Porcello takes matters into his own hands and stops pitching with the same kind of strategy as a Jon Garland or a Tim Hudson, he's going to have these ups and downs.
Marc Normandin is an author of Baseball Prospectus.