So it’s that time of year, isn’t it? Because if you’ve been hanging in there for a while, there hasn’t been a year yet when we haven’t seen predictions from my fellow statheads that Rick Porcello is going to turn the corner. And as Mike Petriello points out, it’s easy to see why this is the year for Porcello. Power ground-ball guy? That’s the kind of pitcher sabermetricians have been gotten worked up about since Bill James first went gaga for Mike Witt 30 years ago.
Here’s why it isn’t so easy: There are people in baseball who bat left-handed, and they don’t go away when Porcello pitches. Instead, they beat on him like a drum. Not just some of them, but all of them. Porcello has been drubbed by lefties at an .820 OPS clip during the course of his career. Last year, his "big step forward," that came down to an .814 OPS (.303/.361/.452). If that’s progress, it’s incremental, if not accidental.
So where did Porcello make his big improvement? Against right-handers, sure. Last year, Porcello held right-handed batters to a .599 OPS, against a .682 career clip. And his incredible 8-to-1 strikeout rate against righties was remarkable. But his ratio of unintentional freebies to whiffs against lefties, the people he had to face more than half of the time? It was just 2-to-1 last year.
Is there any reason to expect these numbers to improve? Terry Francona’s Indians platoon heavily, so that isn’t going to stop hurting Porcello against them. The Royals lean heavily left too. It isn’t like every opposing team in baseball doesn’t know they can’t beat on Porcello by stacking their lineups with lefties, and until he shows the league he can get off-speed and breaking stuff over for strikes against them, they’re going to be able to continue to sit dead red at the plate and keep hammering him.
Every team has its spring rituals, especially where certain players are concerned. If you’re a Tigers fan of a certain age, say, someone who was big into them in the late '70s and early '80s, you could look forward to stories every February that Kirk Gibson was working out with Al Kaline (again), and this year Gibby was going to put all of his gifts to work in the outfield and become a Gold Glove outfielder. It never happened, of course, but it didn’t stop folks from wanting to believe it every year, and it didn’t stop guys from writing about it every year. But in the end, Gibby’s gifts did not go so far as to make him that guy.
That’s sort of where I’m at on Porcello -- show me, and specifically, show me that you can get lefties out. Because the rest of it? That isn’t really something he controls. All of the epiphenomena that Mike is pointing out are absolutely true. The Tigers’ bullpen should do better by him, and probably will. The Tigers’ defense should also do better by him (even if you’re skeptical about Nick Castellanos at third, as I am), and probably will.
But if Porcello can’t start getting left-handed people out consistently for the first time in his career, there’s only so much more excellence he can achieve overpowering the shrinking number of right-handed people he gets to face.
Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN; you can follow her on Twitter.