Game 150, Mariners at Tigers
Joe Saunders vs. Rick Porcello, 4:07pm
The M’s continue their tour through heartland playoff races by facing off against the AL Central-leading Tigers today at Comerica. Unlike the Cards, the Tigers figure to have their division locked up, though Cleveland is five games back and have an extremely favorable schedule in the season’s final two weeks. Still, the action (and fans’ attention) is focused on the wildcard race, as the Indians try to hold off the Royals and leapfrog the Rays and Rangers. The M’s get to mess around in THAT big mess when they return home; they face the Royals at Safeco beginning on the 23rd.
Rick Porcello is one of those players whom many believe could be an entirely different kind of successful pitcher if he wanted to. This started not long after he was drafted by the Tigers with the 27th pick in the 2007 MLB draft. Don’t let that draft position fool you: he was ID’d as the best high-schooler in the draft, and only sunk because everyone knew his bonus demands were sky high. Just as they did in 2006 when UNC’s Andrew Miller fell in the draft due to bonus demands, the Tigers stepped up and paid Porcello an insane $11.1 million ($3.5m for a signing bonus, and a $7m+ contract). Everyone was suitably concerned then when he finished his first minor league season with a K/9 rate in the low 5’s. He was reasonably successful in the pitcher-friendly Florida State League, and the grounders were great, but where was the dominance? In the know fans suggested that he had one or two breaking balls that were lights-out, but which the Tigers had barred him from throwing so he could work on commanding his sinker. We’d all find out when he hit the majors the next year, at age 20.
Again, Porcello was successful, but his K% was a Beavanesque 12%. Were the Tigers *still* barring him from using his death-slider? Since that time, his K% has inched upwards from “laughable” to “meh” but there are still occasional calls for him to stop this nonsense and just strike everyone out (the assumption still being that he could, and that his style is a conscious choice). This always reminds me of the people who swore Ichiro could’ve been a 30-35HR guy, but he selfishly/unselfishly (whichever narrative you pick, you can fit this counterfactual to it!) chose to be a slap hitter. Wade Boggs could’ve done it too! The point is not to mock those who think there are players who *could* dominate but don’t want to for some reason, the point is that we tend to be more interested in Porcello’s strikeout rate than we would, I don’t know, Joe Saunders’. So when Porcello came out in the spring striking out everyone, it got noticed; Tigers fans were stoked.
As it happened, his K% fell back to his career rate in April (“awwww”) but then spiked in May (“woooo“) and has now settled back where it was. All told, his K% is up this year – he’s cracked the 6 K/9 barrier! – but he’s essentially tied with Doug Fister in that metric. None of this is to suggest Porcello is *bad,* he’s just different than we thought he’d be coming out of high school. He’s consistently posted good FIP marks, thanks to his GB% holding down his home runs allowed. But given his sinker-heavy arsenal, he’s posted fairly high platoon splits. Over his career, his FIP is about 1 full run higher vs. lefties than righties, and this year those splits are even more extreme. He’s gone to his curve more this season, and that’s helped him at the margins with lefties (it’s better than his change/sinker), but his K% change has been driven by his success against righties.
1: Ackley, CF
2: Almonte, RF
3: Seager, 3B
4: Morales, DH
5: Ibanez, LF
6: Smoak, 1B
7: Zunino, C
8: Franklin, 2B
9: Triunfel, SS
SP: Joe Saunders
The M’s skip presumptive Cy Young winner Max Scherzer in this four-game set, but still face Porcello/Sanchez/Verlander and Fister, which…*sigh*.