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Post-Hype Analysis: Rick Porcello

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Post-Hype Analysis: Rick Porcello

I get a lot of questions about Rick Porcello, so he is a good topic for a post-hype analysis.

 Rated by most experts as the most advanced high school pitcher in the 2007 draft, Porcello was drafted by the Detroit Tigers 27th overall but would have gone much higher had his signability been more clear. He spent just one year in the minors, posting a 2.66 ERA with a 72/33 K/BB in 125 innings in the Florida State League in 2008. Scouting reports were very positive, focusing in particular on the quality of his sinker and changeup.

His 2.48 GO/AO pointed out the quality of his sinker and he threw strikes, but his K/IP ratio was weak, supposedly because the Tigers had him concentrating on developing his curve over his slider. I gave him a Grade A- in the 2009 book, but noted that the poor K/IP ratio was a caution flag. I still considered him an "elite" prospect, but saw him more as a Brandon Webb style pitcher than a Josh Beckett. Keep in mind that Webb was coming off a terrific season.

Now, as you know, the Tigers jumped Porcello directly to the majors in 2009, and contrary to many expectations (including mine), he pitched well, going 14-9, 3.96 ERA (115 ERA+), with an 89/52 K/BB in 171 innings. His K/IP was weak at 4.7 K/9, but his control was decent and he kept the ball down. However, his FIP and xFIP were weaker than the ERA at 4.77 and 4.27 respectively.

Porcello's 2010 season wasn't as successful, on the surface anyway. He went 10-12, 4.92 ERA, 85 ERA+ in 163 innings, with an 84/38 K/BB and 188 hits allowed. The full run jump in his ERA was scary, but the reality is that his '10 was actually very similar to his '09. His xFIP was virtually identical at 4.24, and his FIP actually improved to 4.31. His WAR for both seasons was exactly the same: 1.9 in both campaigns.

Basically, surface appearances aside, the main difference between Porcello in 2009 and 2010 was luck and defensive support.

Where does he stand going forward? Porcello is a 22-year-old pitcher with a 24-22 record, a 4.50 ERA in 338 innings, ERA+ of 98. He's been above replacement level both seasons, and at his age that's really all the Tigers should expect. Can he improve from where he currently is? And will he stay healthy?

You know I like to look at history, so let's do that. Sim Scores through age 21 aren't particularly encouraging: Virgil Cheeves, Dick Drott, Carl Scheib, Jose Rijo, Billy Serad, Ed Knouff, Steve Avery, Dave Morehead, Alex Fernandez, and Larry Christenson. Rijo, Avery, and Fernandez were all successful pitchers in their 20s, but all three of them burned out by age 30. I'm sure most of you are familiar with their careers.

Of the older players you might not have heard of, Drott was finished as an effective pitcher at age 26. Morehead was finished at 27. Cheeves was burned out at age 24.  Scheib was burned out at age 27. Serad was a guy who pitched in the 1880s so conditions were much different then, but I do note his career was over at age 24. Likewise Knouff, who was pitching in the majors at age 17 in 1885 but was burned out by 22. Christensen pitched in the 1970s and early 1980s and was quite good at times. He was finished as an effective pitcher at age 29.

Not one of these guys made it past age 30. Not one of them.

Now, Sim Scores aren't everything, especially when you're dealing with a guy just beginning his career and with a limited set of data. So let's take a look at the Baseball Prospectus list of Comparable Players, which is a more complex and statheady way to compare players .

On the surface, this is a more positive list: Zack Greinke-2007, Jair Jurrjens-2009, Vin Mazzaro-2010, Mike Witt-1984, Don Drysdale-1960, Don Robinson-1980, Mark Gubicza-1986, Michael-Bowden-2010, Collin Balester-2009, and Dave Rozema-1980 are the top guys. Now, obviously we don't know how the careers of Greinke, Jurrjens, Mazzaro, Bowden, and Balester are going to turn out in terms of durability, so we'll just set them aside (though it is useful to keep in mind the big run of success Greinke and Jurrjens have had since their early rough patches).

But of the players on the Prospectus list with full career data, we find the following.

Don Drysdale became an excellent pitcher, but burned out at age 32. Mike Witt was a very good pitcher but his arm fell off when he was 29. Don Robinson pitched in the majors until age 35, but he got seriously hurt at ages 24 and 26, and spent much of his career as a reliever due to durability problems.  Dave Rozema hurt his arm at age 22, got hurt again at age 25, and was out of the majors by age 30. Gubicza hurt his arm at age 27, and while he kept pitching until he was 33, he was never the same after he got hurt.

So, looking at all of this, my opinion about Rick Porcello is as follows.

I think Porcello has a good chance to develop into an above-average pitcher, and perhaps an excellent one. But the historical precedents strongly suggest that he'll get hurt, probably seriously, and there is a good chance he won't be effective much beyond age 30.

There are factors working in his favor, of course. Managers and coaches are far more conscious of workload management than they were in the past. Training regimens are much better now. Medical science has made huge advances, so even if Porcello does get hurt, he'll have a better chance to recover than the historical precedents did.

The precedents are just that: precedents. History isn't destiny. But it does show the kinds of odds that Porcello faces.