Rick Porcello poised to break out
In a 10-team ESPN standard league, an average starting lineup consists of six or seven starting pitchers. This means that, in an average league, roughly 65 to 70 starting pitchers are started each week in weekly formats, and slightly more than that are owned all together (a standard ESPN league consists of only three bench spots). In other words, a guy who ranks 84th on the ESPN Player Rater among starting pitchers is unlikely to generate much interest. So it's not surprising that Rick Porcello, good ol' No. 84 himself, is currently owned by less than 25 percent of fantasy teams.
However, as the saying goes, sometimes looks can be deceiving.
Porcello's 4.28 ERA this season is hardly impressive, ranking 68th among qualified starting pitchers, but it's his combined 5.24 ERA in April, May and June that really stands out and paints an inaccurate picture of how he's actually performed. In reality, there was a fair amount of bad luck involved. To start, the 24-year-old's April-June strand rate stood at just 60 percent, which is well below league average (his LOB% for the season sits at 69.5 percent, the seventh-lowest mark in the American League). When you add in a slightly inflated .318 batting average on balls in play and a 16 percent HR/FB rate, it's easier to understand why Porcello's first three months were so shaky.
The thing is, not only do Porcello's peripherals over those first three months not suggest an ERA north of 5.00, they were actually pretty darn good. He sported a 7.1 K/9 rate and a 1.8 BB/9 rate in that time frame, and his 4.2 strikeout-to-walk ratio before the All-Star break was the eighth best in the American League. Porcello's 3.50 FIP and 3.04 xFIP in the first half also ranked 13th and sixth in the AL, respectively.
The numbers show that Porcello has indeed taken a step forward from last season. From 2012 to 2013, his K/9 rate jumped from 5.5 to 6.6, his BB/9 rate decreased from 2.3 to 1.9 and his ground ball rate increased from 53 percent to 57 percent. Not only that, but his strikeout rate has increased every year since 2010, his walk rate has dwindled each of the past two seasons and his ground ball rate has also risen every year since 2010. Finally, he's generated more swings and misses each of the past three years. In short, his improvement isn't just a one-year thing; he's consistently getting better each season.
Given the improvement we've seen from Porcello this season, it's worth noting that he's attacking hitters differently than he has in the past. According to FanGraphs.com, from 2010 to 2012 the right-hander never threw his slider/cutter less than 14.5 percent of the time. This season he's thrown it just 5.0 percent of the time. He's also now relying on his curveball more than ever. From 2010 to 2012, he never threw it more than 3.2 percent of the time. This season that percentage is up to 17.3 percent. Here's the complete breakdown:
Whether it's directly related to how often Porcello is throwing each pitch or not, on the whole, his pitches have been more effective this season. FanGraphs.com also lets us look at every pitch type he's thrown this year and, based on the league average, see how many runs were "saved" by using that pitch. In short, we can measure the effectiveness of each pitch type.
Note: Since Porcello obviously doesn't throw each type of pitch equally, the below data measures the numbers of runs saved per 100 pitches thrown:
While his curveball is slightly less effective this season, it's still above average. Meanwhile, his slider/cutter is his most effective pitch now that he's using it more sparingly, and his changeup has improved significantly, as well. Maybe Porcello's adjusted arsenal doesn't tell us the whole story of his development this season, but it does at least give us some insight into his improved (and underrated) performance.
Of course, let's not pretend there aren't any red flags here. While Porcello's strikeout rate has been improving each year and currently sits at a career-high 6.6 K/9, it's still below average for a starting pitcher. More concerning is that his strikeout rate has also been waning as the season has progressed:
May: 9.1 K/9
June: 7.1 K/9
July/August: 5.3 K/9
That's obviously worrisome and keeps his fantasy upside somewhat limited. Plus, while Porcello's FIP and xFIP are significantly lower than his ERA (which can often mean that an ERA correction is coming), there's a good reason for that. The Tigers' infield defense, with Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder manning the corners, is well below average. That would hurt any pitcher, but it especially hurts Porcello, whose 57.2 ground ball rate is the second highest in all of baseball this season behind Justin Masterson. The addition of Jose Iglesias, who replaces the suspended Jhonny Peralta at shortstop, should help, but this is still an infield that is far from ideal for a pitcher who induces so many ground balls.
Nonetheless, there's still a lot to like here, and there's good reason to expect Porcello to be a fantasy asset over the final weeks. Remember, there's less than two months remaining in the regular season, which means most starting pitchers have only 10 or 11 starts left. If you still find yourself looking at your team with a big-picture perspective, stop. It's time to focus on those who are pitching well now and can provide significant help down the stretch.
Porcello entered this week ranking as a top-30 starting pitcher over the past month, and he holds a 4-0 record with a 1.87 ERA and 1.16 WHIP over his past five starts. That alone makes the former first-round pick intriguing, but consider his schedule over the remainder of the season. Over his final 10 starts (which is obviously subject to change), Porcello is on track to get eight games against teams that currently rank 15th or lower in the majors in runs scored. Five of those contests are versus teams that rank bottom-five, and four of those are against the two lowest-scoring teams in baseball (three against the White Sox, who Porcello is 2-0 against with a 1.74 ERA and 1.11 WHIP in three starts this year, and one versus the Marlins). In other words, even if you want to use Porcello only as a matchup play, you can confidently plug him in for nearly all of his remaining starts.
Truth be told, Porcello may not miss enough bats to be a true difference-maker as we enter the stretch run, but that's fine. And so what if he's been the No. 84 starting pitcher in fantasy so far? All you should care about is what he is from this point on. And that should be a fantasy starter who provides plenty of value in the final weeks.