January 14, 2014 at 1:49 pm

Kurt Mensching

Tigers pitcher Rick Porcello's long-awaited emergence may finally be at hand

Seemingly every year since Rick Porcello's emergence in 2009, he's been the tabbed to take a big step forward. (Robin Buckson / Detroit News)

Stop me if you’ve heard this one: The Tigers pitcher primed for a breakout in the coming season is Rick Porcell— oh, you have heard this one before? Sorry.

Seemingly every year since Porcello’s emergence in 2009, he’s been the tabbed to take a big step forward. And yearly, he underwhelms. This is almost an ongoing punchline, like the yearly search for Jeremy Bonderman’s changeup.

It’s always been a bit hard to buy into a full Porcello breakthrough. But if there’s ever a year to believe, this is the one. It’s necessary, too, with the ill-received trade of Doug Fister from the Tigers rotation to the Nationals.

It doesn’t take an advanced statistic, or even a basic one, to help explain Porcello’s struggles. Truly, this kind of analysis is available to any fan who has tuned in for a game on their television or went to the ballpark, because it’s always been right in front of our faces.

Far afield

The Tigers’ infield defense has not been very good for some time. In fact, it hasn’t been very good since — you guessed it —Porcello’s rookie campaign in 2009.

From that point on, the team went from a club with sure-handed Placido Polanco and Adam Everett in the middle to go along with an above-average Brandon Inge at third.

Everett played about a fifth of the season in 2010 but was soon supplanted by Jhonny Peralta, who stayed in Detroit up until his suspension last season. Polanco was followed by disaster after disaster, culminating in Ryan Raburn playing second base before help in the form of Omar Infante finally arrived mid-2012. Meanwhile the past two years, the Tigers had two of the worst-fielding corner infielders you could ask for in Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera.

What’s a sinkerball-tossing Porcello to do? Naturally he suffered with the lack of glove support behind him. His earned-run average of 3.96 his rookie year climbed to 4.92 a year later and gradually decreased to 4.32 last season, and that’s only because he finally found a strikeout pitch.

Meanwhile, Porcello has actually become a better pitcher every year when you look at two predictive statistics, Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) or Skill Interactive ERA (SIERA).

Porcello’s FIP — a simple stat mapped to ERA that focuses on what a pitcher is believed to control, strikeouts, walks and home runs allowed — has dropped all the way from 4.77 to more recently 3.53.

His SIERA figure, a more complicated stat also scaled to ERA that favors groundball pitchers, has steadily fallen from 4.48 his rookie year to 3.39 in 2013.

In other words, Porcello’s doing exactly what you’d hope, keeping the ball out of the air while increasing his strikeouts and limiting his walks, yet he hasn’t had a lot of help from the rest of his team.

The right situation

That is, until this season. The Tigers’ new emphasis on defense should help Porcello finally become that pitcher we’ve been waiting for. Shortstop Jose Iglesias is already one of the best defenders in the game. Second baseman Ian Kinsler has been above average as well.

Now that Fielder has been traded to the Rangers, Cabrera has moved back across the diamond to first, where he’s only a little below average. Prospect Nick Castellanos is expected to take over at third. We can’t say for sure how Castellanos will do there, but it doesn’t take much imagination to believe he’ll be a major upgrade over Cabrera’s ability at the hot corner.

On top of it, the team has brought on a “defensive coordinator,” Matt Martin, known for his work with infield mechanics. He will also help with scouting and player positioning.

Given the improved defense and the natural progression expected of a 25-year-old pitcher, it’s easy to believe this will be Porcello’s best year in Detroit.

Kurt Mensching is the editor of Bless You Boys, a Tigers blog (www.blessyouboys.com). He can be reached at bybtigers@gmail.com.

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