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Tuesday, March 23, 2010
FanGraphs: Why Porcello needs more K's

By Bryan Smith, FanGraphs

By conventional wisdom, Rick Porcello is the type of pitcher who is supposed to succeed in the major leagues. He has the perfect pitcher's physique at 6-foot-5, 200 pounds. He can touch 95 miles per hour and throws two wipeout breaking pitches. It takes a special arm to handle the jump from A-ball to The Show, and Porcello proved he has it last year.

At FanGraphs, we track the runs above average of every type of pitch in a pitcher's arsenal. These, called "pitch type linear weights," examine how each pitch thrown alters the expected number of runs scored in the inning. Last season, only 23 starting pitchers -- including seven of the 10 who received Cy Young votes -- had fastballs that were at least 10 runs above average over the course of the season. Porcello was one of them, ranking between Cliff Lee and CC Sabathia at 14.4 runs above average. This is a case in which the statistics match the scouting reports: Porcello has one of the game's best fastballs.

The wonder, however, is why these scouting elements that put Porcello in such high standing don't translate to the strikeout column. Of all starting pitchers to qualify for the ERA title last season, Porcello ranked eighth from the bottom in strikeouts per nine innings (K/9) at just 4.69. Of the 23 pitchers on the best fastballs list, the average strikeout rate was 7.61, and only Joel Pineiro had a K/9 ratio lower than Porcello's. The Tigers right-hander succeeded the same way as Pineiro, with ground balls, at the fifth-highest rate in the majors (Pineiro was No. 1).

Still, to have success going forward, Porcello will need to pitch more like he did in the Tigers' final game last season, when he left the American League Central tiebreaker with the lead after striking out a career-high eight batters. Sustaining this type of performance for Year 2 isn't unheard of, and given Porcello's pedigree, pointing to Bret Saberhagen as an example is fair. Like Porcello, Saberhagen debuted in the majors at age 20, had an ERA 16 percent above league average, had good control and had a below-average strikeout rate. In his second year, Saberhagen went out and won the Cy Young, striking out hitters at a 30 percent higher clip in the process.

The Tigers don't need Porcello to win the Cy Young this season to win their division. But to reach the peak Porcello's stuff suggests, pitching coach Rick Knapp must scrap any instruction centering around pitching to contact. More strikeouts are the fastest way to lower your ERA, and Porcello has the stuff to do it. The sooner the Tigers convince their young star of this, the sooner he joins Justin Verlander atop the rotation.

Bryan Smith is an author of FanGraphs.