Blog Entry

Learning Curves

Posted on: April 30, 2009 2:18 pm

For any rookie playing in his first full season at the Major League level, there are several learning curves.  When that rookie is a 20-year old pitcher two years out of high school, with a single season of professional ball at the class-A level under his belt, the pitching mound becomes a classroom for each appearance in the big leagues.  Such has been exactly the case for right-handed pitcher Rick Porcello of the Detroit Tigers.

Early Development

He grew up in New Jersey, where most rooted for either the New York Yankees or the New York Mets.  Porcello was a Mets fan.  He graduated from the Seton Hall Preparatory School in West Orange, New Jersey.  A highlight in his high school pitching career came on May 12, 2007 against Newark Academy.  He hurled a perfect game.  He skipped playing college baseball for North Carolina to jump right into Major League Baseball.  Now that would be a learning curve.

Selected by Detroit as their first round draft pick in 2007, he has quickly moved up to the parent club.  A lot of talent, seemingly limitless potential, a controlled disposition and approach to the game, and a willingness to learn, all point to great possibilites for this young man.  He spent 2008 with advanced Class-A team Lakeland Flying Tigers.  He made 24 starts, pitching a total of 125 innings, and tallied an 8-6 record.  His cumulative ERA was 2.66 and a WHIP of 1.192.  He recorded 72 strikeouts and 33 walks.  He yielded 51 runs, 37 being earned runs, on 116 hits and seven homeruns.  His "ace in the hole" pitch is a fastball sinker.  While in the Florida State League he needed to add an effective second pitch to his arsenal.  He was developing his curveball.  Yes, literally another learning curve.

Continuing the Process

So how has the huge leap from single-A to the Major League level gone thus far for the rookie right-hander?  His first major league start came on April 9th in Toronto, with the Blue Jays winning the game.  His second start was in Seattle against the Mariners on April 19th, with Porcello earning his first career victory for the Tigers.  The Kansas City Royals were next up on April 24th.  That game went down as a loss.  Last night, April 29th, saw him atop the pitching mound for his fourth overall start, and first at Comerica Park.  The challenge was to face a New York Yankees squad at .500 for the season, trying to get their pitching rotation stable.  Even so, every opposing team and pitcher needs to respect what the Yankees could potentially do to you.  Coming off a huge eruption for 10 runs in the seventh inning the previous day in Detroit, New York was ready for the inexperienced kid on the mound.  Salivating at the chance to see what he had, and to figure him out.  Watching game film of a new rookie pitcher and reading scouting reports is one thing.  Actually facinig him is another.  Advantage Porcello.  For the first time through the line up, anyway.  A curve in learning that the Yankees now faced.  Who would prevail?

The Yankees' lineup posed a challenge for the young right-handed hurler developing a "go-to" second pitch this year.  The lone right-handed hitter in the lineup was the leadoff man, Derek Jeter.  Porcello, able to effectively get that fastball to sink, got Jeter to ground out in the opening at-bat.  Hitters nos. two through nine all were hitting as left-handers last night, featuring three natural lefties and five switch hitters.  Johnny Damon, hitting in the second slot, reached safely on an in-field single.  Mark Teixeira grounded out, followed by the dangerous Hideki Matsui reaching first with a walk.  Robinson Cano ended the inning with a ground out.  Five hitters, three outs, and no runs scored in the first frame.  The sinker sank, leading to three ground outs.  On to the second inning.

Jorge Posada drew a walk to lead it off.  The second free pass issued by Porcello, and only in the second inning.  In his previous three starts combined, he walked three hitters over 18 innings of play.  The next three hitters went down in order; Nick Swisher, Melky Cabrera and Ramiro Pena.  Whew.  Through the Yankees batting order, laden with potential power, in two innings, giving up zero runs.  Porcello learning the ropes against the Yankees, and the Yankees closely watching the pitcher first-hand.  In an impressive eight-pitch third inning, Rick Porcello was able to retire the top of the batting order in 1-2-3 fashion.  At this point, Porcello was settling down nicely, with his nemesis Joba Chamberlain still having control problems on the mound.  Now comes the litmus test.  Inning four.

In his second at-bat, Hideki Matsui is walked.  Three walks issued in the game at this point.  Cano lines out for the first out of the inning.  Posada enters the batters' box next, and receives all fast balls, ending up in a single.  Porcello now faces Nick Swisher, with the count reaching three balls and 2 strikes.  On the full count pitch, Porcello  attempts his secondary pitch, a curve ball.  It came in high and outside, floating up there more like an off-speed pitch.  Bam!  Out goes the ball.  A three-run homerun.  Cabrera singles, Pena singles, Jeter is out (again) on a fielder's choice for the second out.  Up comes Damon, belting a double, scoring another run.  Out goes young Porcello.  The Yankees were the quicker on the learning curve on this night than Rick Porcello.  As Jim Leyland said after the game regarding his rookie pitcher, "It's a matter of learning."  For this first meeting, advantage goes to the New York Yankees.  Patience will be needed, by both pitcher and management, as this youngster matures.

Progress To Date

For his career to date, Rick Porcello's statistics are as follows.  He has started four games, pitching 21.2 innings with an accumulated 6.23 ERA.  (Last night did not help, being charged with six earned runs.)  He has surrendered 16 runs, 15 being earned, on 25 hits, including six homeruns.  He has struck out 12 and walked six.  A learning process, to be sure.

Against the Yankees last night, he faced 20 batters in 3.2 innings of work.  Of his 75 pitches, he threw 43 for strikes.  He needs to throw more first pitch strikes to batters, giving him an advantage.  Interesting, though, is that Joba Chamberlain threw 50 strikes out of a total pitch count of 88.  Percentage-wise, Porcello was better in throwing strikes last night.  (.573 - .568)

More work to be done.  More to learn, that's obvious.  He has the tools, the demeanor, and the support to continue an upward march in his learning curve.  As a rookie, he has drawn comparisons to a young Josh Beckett.  Rick Porcello will continue to be viewed as a contributor to the Detroit Tigers' pitching staff, with a lot of their future depending on how quickly and steadily he continues to learn.

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