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Wednesday, July 2, 2014
Porcello, Richards fighting for All-Star spot

By David Schoenfield

@dschoenfield Porcello with the #Maddux (95 pitches)

— Olugbenga Ajilore (@kerebutu74) July 2, 2014


Not only that: Rick Porcello threw a no-strikeout, no-walk shutout -- the first time that's happened since Jeff Ballard did it in 1989, making this one of the coolest performances of the season.

Porcello's four-hit gem to beat the A's 3-0 was a thing of beauty: He threw first-pitch strikes to 24 of 31 batters, increased his scoreless streak to 25 innings and improved to 11-4 with a 3.12 ERA. In this age of more strikeouts and more strikeouts, Porcello is a throwback to another era ... one that existed a mere 25 years ago, when you didn't have to average nine or 10 strikeouts per nine innings to be considered an elite pitcher.

Rick Porcello
Rick Porcello's breakthrough this season could put him in the All-Star Game.
Porcello has 62 strikeouts in 106 2/3 innings and a K rate of 5.2 per nine innings. Among the 93 qualified starting pitchers, that rate ranks 87th; his sinker induces ground balls, not strikeouts. It's just a different style of pitching than we're used to now, but there's no reason it can't be successful. Back in the '80s and up through 1993, the league-average strikeout rate was less than six per innings, so obviously many pitchers won back then with strikeout rates similar to Porcello's.

His approach does require good infield defense, and the Tigers are definitely stronger in that area this season, with the departure of Prince Fielder, the move of Miguel Cabrera from third base to first base and the addition of Ian Kinsler. More shifting also helps. It's no coincidence that Porcello's average on balls in play is .266, after averaging .327 from 2011 to 2013.

It's not just better defense, however; Porcello is throwing his curveball more -- 16 percent of his pitches this year compared to 8 percent of the time over the previous three seasons. To be fair, this trend started last season and has proven to be an effective pitch, as batters have hit .208 against it the past two seasons, compared to .293 against his slider. More curves and better defense have made Porcello a better pitcher. He's been around so long that we forget that he's still 25, clearly young enough to still be learning and adapting his stuff.

This time of year, it's fun to talk about potential All-Star selections. Porcello's strong first half certainly puts him in prime consideration for a spot. Once you get past some of the automatic selections -- Felix Hernandez, Masahiro Tanaka, Yu Darvish, Jon Lester, David Price, Chris Sale (well, he should be automatic, even if he missed time with an injury), here are four other surprise guys battling Porcello for maybe one or two spots on the American League staff:

Garrett Richards, Angels (9-2, 2.81 ERA, .194 AVG, 108 SO, 40 BB). Richards is the new kind of cool: high-octane fastball and a wipeout slider. His average fastball velocity is second in the majors among starters to Yordano Ventura, and he's improved his command to become an elite starter in the first half. Like Porcello, he helped his All-Star case with a strong outing on Tuesday. He gave up a three-run home run to Jose Abreu in the first inning after he had walked two batters, but then he settled down and over his final seven innings allowed just one more hit and no walks. That's exactly the sign of maturing the Angels are seeing this year. Another example: After the A's knocked him out in the first inning on May 30, he's responded with his best stretch of the season, with a 1.49 ERA and .147 average allowed over six starts. At this point, he's just about a lock to make the team.

Dallas Keuchel, Astros (8-5, 2.78, .234 AVG, 88 SO, 26 BB). Who saw this coming? I don't want to compare him to Tom Glavine, but he's kind of like Tom Glavine. His fastball sits 89 to 92 and he pounds the outside corner with fastballs and changeups. He'll also go inside to righties with a wipeout slider -- righties are hitting .151 against with 26 strikeouts in 56 plate appearances.

There was nothing in Keuchel's track record that said he could be this good -- he owned a 5.20 ERA over his first two seasons with Houston while giving up 34 home runs in 239 innings -- but there's no fluke here. The strikeout rate is good enough, his control is excellent and he keeps the ball down in the zone, a reason he's allowed just five home runs. I think he's the real deal, one of those lefties who figures things out ... just like Glavine did after a rocky start in his first couple of years with the Braves.

Corey Kluber, Indians (7-6, 2.99 ERA, .254 AVG, 127 SO, 29 BB). Kluber actually had a breakout season of sorts last year with a 3.85 ERA and excellent peripherals, but he made just 24 starts, so it didn't get much attention. But check out that strikeout rate: 127 whiffs in 117 1/3 innings. He's eighth among all starters in strikeout percentage. His curveball has developed into one of the most unhittable weapons in the league: Batters are hitting .087 against it with 61 strikeouts, three walks and no home runs. Yes, those are Kershaw-esque types of results.

Don't put too much emphasis on that win-loss record. Kluber has allowed two runs or fewer in 11 of his 18 starts but has won just six of those games. He's good. How are we going to find room for all these guys?

Scott Kazmir, A's (9-3, 2.16 ERA, .216 AVG, 91 SO, 24 BB). Kazmir was one of the best stories of 2013, when he returned after years of injuries, awful results and not even pitching in the majors to go 10-9 with Cleveland. He's been even better with Oakland this year, justifying the two-year contract the A's gave him as a free agent. Kazmir's fastball isn't as overpowering as it was when he was a two-time All-Star with Tampa Bay in 2006 and 2008, but he still throws in the low 90s and mixes in a slider, curve, cutter and changeup, with the changeup becoming his best strikeout pitch.

OK, five guys, all worthy first-half All-Stars. Which one most deserves to make the American League's All-Star team?