It's possible, in the end, that the Detroit Tigers just aren't as good as everyone believed. Famous? Sure. Big-name players? Sure. A playoff team? Not so sure.
Take Monday's starter in the first game of a crucial four-game showdown against the American League Central-leading Chicago White Sox. Rick Porcello has been famous in baseball circles since he was the 27th pick in the 2007 draft. Many scouts believed he had the best arm in the draft that year but he fell to Detroit because of a high price tag. After one year at Class A ball, he was in the majors as a 20-year-old rookie in 2009 and had a pretty nice season, going 14-9 with a 3.96 ERA. Jim Leyland had enough confidence in Porcello to start him in the AL Central tiebreaker game against the Twins, and Porcello left in the sixth inning with a 3-2 lead, although the Tigers would eventually lose the game.
Many in the game still love Porcello's arm, especially his bread-and-butter power sinker, and they've been waiting for a breakthrough season. It hasn't happened. Monday night, he was cruising along through five innings, having allowed only two hits and his sinker had helped generate six ground-ball outs.
In the sixth, he struck out Kevin Youkilis but Dewayne Wise reached on Omar Infante's error. Paul Konerko singled to left on a 1-2 92-mph sinker. That led to a visit from Tigers pitching coach Jeff Jones. Whatever advice Jones gave him ("Go get 'em, kid!"), it certainly didn't help. Two pitches later, Alex Rios drilled Porcello's two-seam fastball -- his 10th two-seamer in a row in the inning -- over the left-field fence for a three-run homer. Two pitches later -- a changeup and then another two-seamer -- A.J. Pierzynski made it 4-1 with a crushing solo shot to center. Exit, Porcello.
It's no coincidence that Porcello struggled the third time through the Chicago lineup. Look at stats entering Monday's start:
First time through the order: .281/.314/.377, 3.40 SO/BB ratio
Second time through the order: .304/.346/.464, 3.08 SO/BB ratio
Third time through the order: .356/.407/.494, 1.60 SO/BB ratio
Look, Infante's error set the inning in motion. Maybe Porcello goes 1-2-3 without the miscue. On the other hand, this outing was par for the course for the right-hander. For whatever reason, his sinker becomes less effective as the game goes along. Here's another stat that illustrates that:
Innings 4-6: .239/.283/.307 (220 plate appearances ending with a sinker)
Innings 5-7: .410/.453/.581 (129 plate appearances ending with a sinker)
Sabermetricians keep track of a stat called BABIP, batting average allowed on balls in play. I cite it here quite often. The consensus theory is that pitchers have little control -- some argue none -- over what happens once the ball is put in play, that the result is the residue of defense and some combination of good or bad fortune. Among qualified starters, Porcello entered Monday's games with the worst BABIP in the majors at .350. Considering teammate Max Scherzer was second-worst at .336, it's fair to suggest Detroit's defense is somewhat to blame here -- the Tigers are 27th in the majors in percentage of balls in play that are turned into outs. (Although it's interesting to note that Porcello is a fairly extreme ground-ball pitcher and Scherzer a fairly extreme fly-ball pitcher.)
Still, the above numbers seem to suggest that Porcello clearly has a large degree of control of what is happening against him. It is worth mentioning that the typical major league pitcher also fares worse as the game progresses:
First time: .251/.310/.401, 2.83 SO/BB ratio
Second time: .263/.322/.420, 2.44 SO/BB ratio
Third time: .273/.331/.446, 2.22 SO/BB ratio
But Porcello's decline is obviously much more severe than the average starter, which is undoubtedly why Jeff Jones paid Porcello a visit after an error and a single. It's hard to tell exactly what goes on to explain Porcello's decline in the middle innings. Here are two heats map of Porcello's two-seam sinker location:
As you can see, those maps aren't exactly the same thing. Opposing hitters fare very well with the location on the second map, as Porcello's sinker apparently flattens out and gets less movement.
So now the famous Tigers are three games behind the less-famous White Sox. (Jose who?) There are still three games left in the series and 22 games remaining in the season. Maybe the Tigers will finally go on that big run like we saw when they began the season 9-3. If so, it better start on Tuesday. And if so, it's time for somebody besides Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder to do something on offense. ... And maybe time for Leyland and Jones to realize before his next start that Porcello is good for about four or five innings.
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