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Rick Porcello’s Success With Tigers Comes Down To Effectiveness Of Sinker

(Credit: Elsa/Getty Images)

(Credit: Elsa/Getty Images)

By David Heck, Special to CBS Local Sports

CBS Local Sports will be profiling one young player from each Major League Baseball team every day for the next 30 days as part of our “30 Players 30 Days” spring training feature.

Rick Porcello, Starting Pitcher, Detroit Tigers

2011 season: 14-9, 182 IP, 4.75 ERA, 1.41 WHIP, 104 K, 46 BB

You’re probably familiar with the name because he’s been around for a while, but at 23 years old, Porcello is the same age as many recent college graduates. Despite his youth, he will be heading into his fourth season in 2012, an impressive feat that actually has a precedent in recent Tigers history (remember Jeremy Bonderman?). But even though he’s been pitching in the big leagues for a while, the right-hander still has a lot of growing to do.

A relative phenomenon his rookie year, Porcello posted a 3.96 ERA while effectively pitching as Detroit’s No. 3 starter. The Tigers took a risk by promoting him at such a young age, but it almost paid off handsomely, as the team fell just one win shy of a playoff appearance. Since then, however, Porcello has only regressed. His ERA was well north of 4.00 in each of the last two seasons, and he’s proved hittable, allowing opponent batting averages of .288 and .292, respectively.

It’s easy to blame Porcello’s trial by fire as the root of the problem – when you’re just trying to survive in the Majors, you’re not going to alter your game to something you’re not comfortable with – but that really isn’t the issue. Porcello is a sinkerballer, and while a young starter could almost always use another pitch, he doesn’t really need one.

In 2009, Porcello relied heavily on his sinker and still managed to finish third in the American League Rookie of the Year voting. The pitch lost some effectiveness in 2010, though, and then it lost even more in 2011. This year will prove pivotal for Porcello, as he can’t really afford for his sinker to fall any further – if it does, his Major League career won’t be far behind it. If he finds his pitch, however, he could be a strong middle-of-the-rotation starter for one of the best teams in the AL.

The encouraging news about Porcello is that because he’s still so young, there is plenty of reason to hope that he will bounce back. His physique is not declining, and his velocity is still fine. He just needs to make a tweak here or there, and some luck wouldn’t hurt either (though with Miguel Cabrera playing third base, that might not be in the cards). One thing Porcello has always done relatively well is eat innings, and that should be the case again this year. He’s never going to strike out a ton, and he’s never going to be an ace, but he could still be an above-average pitcher. That sinker just has to sink.

Next up on March 10: Kansas City Royals