July 2, 2014 at 6:34 pm

Tony Paul

MLB Insider: Tigers' Rick Porcello, thanks to dynamite change-up, a near-certain All-Star

Rick Porcello hugs pitching coach Jeff Jones after finishing his complete game shutout on Tuesday night at Comerica Park. (Elizabeth Conley / Detroit News)

Detroit – A Tigers pitcher has started the All-Star Game each of the last two years.

It was Justin Verlander in 2012.

Then Max Scherzer in 2013.

Now, could they make it 3-for-3 in 2014?

Probably not, but Rick Porcello sure is making an intriguing case, following Tuesday’s game against the A’s – which just happened to be his second consecutive complete-game shutout.

That gave Porcello his 11th win of the season, tying him for the league lead with Yankees “rookie” Masahiro Tanaka, who remains the odds-on favorite to be John Farrell’s choice to start.

Mariners ace Felix Hernandez, A’s lefty Scott Kazmir, Rays stud David Price and Blue Jays veteran Mark Buehrle also have to be in the discussion.

Few of those are a surprise, outside of maybe Buehrle.

But Porcello certainly wasn’t on the national consciousness much ahead of this season. He always was on the Tigers’, though. Tigers brass has believed in him from the day they selected the lanky right-hander 27th overall in the 2007 draft.

The Tigers continued to show their faith last offseason when they decided, much to the surprise of the fan base, to trade Doug Fister and keep Porcello.

The faith was due to a phenomenal 2013 season in which Porcello showed fantastic growth, even if it was disguised by a 4.32 ERA. His secondary stuff took a big step forward, namely the change-up he’s used to limit the damage left-handed hitters used to do against him, and his sinker became much more effective. And he’s carried it right over to 2014.

Inducing one groundball after another – there were an unfathomable 17 groundball outs Tuesday – Porcello, still only 25, is posting career bests in ERA (3.12), WHIP (1.125) and WAR (3.3). One could make the case he’s actually been Detroit’s best starter, on a team with a stable of thoroughbreds.

OK, so he’s not likely to start the All-Star Game on July 15 at Target Field in Minneapolis. But his place on that roster, for the first time, is darn-near certain – perhaps the most solid of any Tiger, outside Miguel Cabrera, who is cruising in the voting to his second consecutive start.

Here’s a look at the cases for other Tigers, in order of a likely selection:

Victor Martinez, DH: Asked the other day about possibly participating in the Home Run Derby, Martinez actually cracked that he didn’t even know if he’d be at the All-Star Game. Huh? He won’t start because of Nelson Cruz’s redemption season, and fans’ obsession with David Ortiz. But he’s a slam-dunk for a roster spot, with his 20 homers, 52 RBIs and a filthy OPS of .974., which, in the American League, trails only a man named Mike Trout.

Anibal Sanchez, SP: It’s quite hard to believe that Sanchez, now in his ninth major-league season, has never made an All-Star Game. He was right on the bubble last year, but had a rough start the day Jim Leyland was finalizing the roster – so he missed out. He’s right on the fringe again this year, the only argument against him being workload. He missed some starts with that blister. But his WHIP is 0.976 and his ERA is 2.63, so he’ll certainly get at least a look.

Ian Kinsler, 2B: He surely deserving, given his .306 average, 10 home runs and 41 RBIs – all among the leaders at his position. The problem here, though, is the depth at the position. Robinson Cano is going to start, and Jose Altuve is going to be his first backup. Then there’s Dustin Pedroia and Brian Dozier, both worth a serious look. That’s, by far, the biggest roadblack to Kinsler’s fourth All-Star selection, and his first since 2012. A “Final Vote” candidate.

Max Scherzer, SP: If fans could remove last year’s spectacular season from the equation – there was never any chance to duplicate that – then his 2014 performance would be far more appreciated. Outside of a couple dud starts, he’s been pretty darn good. The WHIP (1.249) is a bit bulky, though, and given the number of pitchers he’s competing with for a spot – and the requirement each team be represented – he’ll likely get the break off.

J.D. Martinez, OF: This is the longest of long shots, but I just wanted to make a point. Remember the fans clamoring last year for Dodgers rookie Yasiel Puig to be an All-Star, with eight homers and 19 RBIs in 161 plate appearances? Well, Martinez, through Tuesday, had 10 homers and 34 RBIs in 158 plate appearances. Granted, Puig hit .436 in the first half, but it still was silly talk, all the same.

The All-Star rosters will be announced at 7 p.m. Sunday on ESPN, ahead of a “Sunday Night Baseball” showdown between the Rays and Tigers at Comerica Park.

Improving pitches

Circling back to Porcello, what’s made him so successful this year?

There are two things that really stand out – and they’re totally related.

His change-up is lights-out. Consider this: Batters have posted a .154 average off his change-up this year. The change-up, of course, also happens to be the pitch he uses so frequently to hold left-handed hitters in check. Lefties have batted .299 against Porcello for his career with big-time power, but this year, that number is down to .236 with just three home runs in 244 plate appearances.

That was the improvement Porcello needed to make, given teams frequently load up their lineups with one lefty after another when facing him.

The change-up is a pitch that’s gotten better every year for Porcello.

According to Fangraphs, batters hit .275 against his change during his rookie season in 2009, then .253 in 2010 and 2011, .240 in 2012 and .226 in 2013.

It should be noted, Porcello’s curveball has been huge, too, with a .200 batting average against. That’s also good for the best mark in his career.

Porcello is fast becoming a prime example of how successful a pitcher can be, even without that dominating fastball.

Trade talk leaks

In case you missed it, baseball had its own version of WikiLeaks recently. The Astros’ database was hacked, revealing for all to see a boatload of trade discussions and player evaluations from last summer and this past offseason.

The website Anonbin first reported the Astros’ detailed notes, which later were published at Deadspin and Yahoo! Sports.

It’s quite a breach not just for the Astros, but also the scores of teams they engaged with in trade discussions, including ahead of last summer’s deadline. So serious, the FBI is even investigating.

There were a couple revelations involving the Tigers, over their interest in veteran reliever Jose Veras last summer. According to Deadspin, Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski and Astros GM Jeff Luhnow texted last July, with Dombrowski, interestingly, showing some interest in starting pitcher Bud Norris. The Astros said they would consider Norris and Veras for Nick Castellanos, but Dombrowski, predictably, said no thanks – an easy decline, given the Tigers didn’t have a burning need for any starting pitching.

The Astros then suggested Norris for Tigers starting pitching prospect Jake Thompson; another no.

Talks resumed a week later, around July 29, when Dombrowski proposed outfield prospect Danrys Vasquez for Veras, and that’s the deal that went down – with the Tigers throwing in a player to be named. That ended up being minor-league right-hander David Paulino.

Bonuses for Bonilla

There is no sadder day in Queens than July 1.

That’s the day, every year, for more than two decades the Mets must cut a $1.19 million check to former slugger Bobby Bonilla.

Bonilla hasn’t played for the Mets since 1999, and hasn’t played in baseball since 2001, yet is the beneficiary of one of the cushiest contracts in the sport’s history.

The Mets wanted him gone in 1999, so they offered to buy him out – with a heck of a perk. They suggested deferring his contract, and agreed to make him annual payments starting in 2011, with 8-percent interest. That deal turned a nearly $6 million contract into a deal worth nearly $30 million. Bonilla will continue to get the annual check from the Mets until 2035.

When the Mets made that deal, they forecasted a bright financial future. Then came Bernie Madoff.

According to Sporting News, Bonilla, 51, also gets $500,000 a year from the Orioles, in a similar buyout that runs through next year, and is paid at least $200,000 a year to be a special assistant for the Major League Baseball Players Association.

Yes, life is good.

Around the horn

Cabrera is heading to another All-Star Game. Will he make another appearance in the Home Run Derby? He has been in talks with American League captain Jose Bautista, and hasn’t ruled it out yet. If he accepts a spot on the team, he’d keep to his tradition of participating every four years. He took hacks in 2006 with the Marlins and in 2010 with the Tigers.

Victor Martinez might be asked too, but given his recent side injury, he’s very likely to decline.

Three up ...

1. Cubs RHP Jake Arrieta is in some kind of groove right now, with serious no-hit bids his last two starts – and a 0.73 ERA his last five starts.

2. Astros 2B Jose Altuve just continues to play far bigger than his stature. His June was something special, with a .411 average and 17 steals.

3. Lloyd McClendon’s Mariners just keep on rolling along. With eight wins in their last 10 games, they’re a serious threat in the AL West.

… Three down

1. The Yankees are showing their age, having lost eight of their last 10 to fall to .500. It’ll be interesting to see if they’re sellers or buyers.

2. Red Sox SP Jake Peavy is having a rough year. So solid for so long, he’s getting rocked now. His 17 homers allowed are most in the league.

3. The Tigers-Milt Wilcox saga is sad. He said he wasn’t invited to the 1984 reunion; the team says he was. So, somebody’s not telling the truth.

Diamond digits

5 – Players in the last 60 years who have hit walk-off grand slams against their former teams, according to Elias Sports Bureau. Detroit’s Rajai Davis was the latest, on Monday against Oakland. Others: Harold Baines, Moises Alou, Vance Law and Carroll Hardy.

0-13 – Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrera’s weekend in Houston. Per Elias, that’s tied for the biggest 0-for in a three-game series during his career. In a May 2012 series in Seattle, he also went 0-for-13.

7/3/76 – Tigers rookie phenomenon Mark Fidrych’s magical season continued with a 4-0 victory over the Orioles at Tiger Stadium. That was Fidrych’s first complete-game shutout, of four that year.

He said it

“It’s a lot easier to win it with David being part of the group.”

– Joe Maddon, manager of the Rays – who have managed to get hot and somewhat back in the AL East discussion, despite rumors about ace David Price’s likely departure via trade.

tpaul@detroitnews.com

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