Porcello is a reminder of youth’s fallibility

Rick Porcello, who was supposed to be the Tigers' savior, has been demoted to Triple-A.
(Charles Rex Arbogast/AP Photo)

We must remind ourselves, it doesn’t always work out this well. Pitchers don’t dominate from start No. 1, and hitters don’t slug from at-bat No. 1, and fielders don’t get to every ball hit in their vicinity from chance No. 1.

That we have been treated to immediate transcendence from Stephen Strasburg(notes) (arm), Jason Heyward(notes) (bat) and Austin Jackson(notes) (glove) overwhelms our senses, because for each of them, there are many more like Rick Porcello(notes).

He arrived a few months after his 20th birthday last season, fast-tracked by a Detroit Tigers team that assumed his talent would play against major leaguers. It did. Porcello posted 14 wins. In the season’s last two months, as Detroit fought with Minnesota for the American League Central crown, he limited opponents to a .639 OPS over 13 starts. The specter of Justin Verlander(notes) and Porcello atop the Tigers’ rotation practically assured them of Central contending for five years.

Only we forget. Or let the hype entangle us. Or romanticize and idealize and baptize the game’s youth. They are fallible, each of them, from Strasburg to Heyward to Jackson, prone to the same successes and failures as everyone. Strasburg is not Jeezus, Heyward not some Vitruvian hitter, Jackson not equipped with Go-Go Gadget arms.

The Tigers sent Porcello to Triple-A on Sunday. He was 4-7 with a 6.14 ERA, which ranks 113th among 114 qualifying starters. On the list of disappointments in 2010 …

1. Rick Porcello ranks at the top, and everyone is scrambling to figure out why it got so bad.

Theory No. 1: Increased workload. Porcello pitched 45 2/3 more innings in 2009 than in 2008. Such situations have come under increased scrutiny in recent years after Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci noted that pitchers under 25 who take more than a 30-inning jump in any given year are prone to injury and regression. While a number of studies have spat on Verducci’s findings, the theory remains popular among many teams that coddle young arms.

Theory No. 2: The Tigers messed with him. When they stole Porcello with the 27th pick of the 2007 draft – other teams were scared off by his bonus demands, and he signed a major league deal for $7.28 million – the Tigers de-emphasized strikeouts and suggested he let his fastball’s natural sinking movement dictate how he pitch. He did, and while Porcello succeeded as a groundball pitcher, the strikeout machine he was in high school turned into a creaky wheel. Last year, Porcello struck out 89 in 170 2/3 innings. His rate was even lower this year: less than one strikeout every two innings, a brutal rate even for a groundball pitcher.

Theory No. 3: He lost his breaking ball. Porcello threw two benders in high school: a curveball and a slider. Both pitches were knocked around last year, though the slider was superior toward the end of the season, and the Tigers asked him to scrap the curveball for 2010. Well, the slider has been a disaster, and with hitters sitting on his fastball, it has turned into a mess of a pitch, too.

Theory No. 4: It’s Nos. 1, 2 and 3 together, a little bit of each, and that’s the likeliest causation. Rarely does one issue cause a player to flame out so …

2. Spectacularly, as has Gordon Beckham(notes), who finished a couple spots behind Porcello in the Rookie of the Year balloting. Among players who qualify for the batting title this season, none has hit worse than Beckham. Not Pedro Feliz(notes). Not Ronny Cedeno(notes). Not even – gulp – Juan Pierre(notes).

Beckham’s .536 OPS – a .277 on-base percentage and .259 slugging percentage – ranks lowest in the major leagues. For a 23-year-old whom the White Sox rushed after 233 minor league at-bats and who finished last season with an .807 OPS, the implosion is stark. Beckham last year represented everything the White Sox could be; this year he represents everything they are.

The constant position shifting, from shortstop in college to third base last season to second base this season, can’t help. And yet it’s a minor obstacle, the sort of thing …

3. Matt Wieters(notes) would shrug off since he can make an omelet without breaking any eggs. And since sliced bread is actually the best thing since him. Why, nobody with the nickname “God” – bestowed upon Wieters as a freshman in college, the perfect complement to Jeezus down the Beltway – could dare do anything but thrive, right?

Five spots ahead of Beckham on the OPS list is Wieters, his .613 ranking 168th in the major leagues. He is hitting .223, getting on base at a .287 clip and slugging .326. God he most certainly ain’t.

It’s not like Wieters is much better from either side of the plate or at home as opposed to the road. He has been quite awful in every scenario, and considering his tools, skills and makeup, it must be something crazy, something like …

4. A curse on his first name, because the awfulness through which Wieters is suffering stretches to Matt Kemp(notes), too. His bat is quieter than last year. His base-stealing technique is MIA: 10 caught stealing in 20 tries. Worst of all is Kemp’s defense.

Matt Kemp

Every time Kemp runs to the outfield, Rihanna should sing “SOS.” A year after he won the Gold Glove, Kemp has been the single worst fielder in the major leagues, according to various defensive metrics, and it’s not even close. Now, numbers people will say a half-season or so of defensive statistics are not a great sample size on which to base proclamations. Still, no player at any position has been worse this year in John Dewan’s plus-minus system. Kemp is minus-18, meaning he has made 18 fewer plays than the average center fielder. His Ultimate Zone Rating, another metric, is also bottom among all big leaguers.

Kemp has made 131 of 145 plays in the center fielder’s zone, according to Dewan, a total that ranks 18th among 25 qualifiers at his position. Only Kansas City’s Mitch Maier(notes) has made fewer than Kemp’s 20 out-of-zone plays – and Maier has been in 212 fewer innings than Kemp. Alex Rios(notes), Jackson, Marlon Byrd(notes) and Chris Young each have more than twice Kemp’s out-of-zone plays.

Just to ensure this wasn’t statistical bias, a scout who often sees Kemp was asked his impression of the 25-year-old: “Bad jumps, bad routes – just not a smart center fielder.” The prevalence of defense …

5. Helps determine players’ values more than ever, and it’s why Seattle moved Gold Glove-level third baseman Chone Figgins(notes) to second base upon his signing. The Mariners figured Figgins would get more chances at second and turn the double play better. While the incumbent, Jose Lopez(notes), has been excellent at third, Figgins’ struggles at second base are confirmed by another scout as well as plus-minus and UZR.

And they don’t begin to address his concerns with the bat. Figgins is part of an elite baker’s dozen of players whose on-base percentage exceeds their slugging percentage. A few are big names in their mid-30s: Chipper Jones(notes), Todd Helton(notes). Others are catchers: Jason Kendall(notes), Yadier Molina(notes), Russell Martin(notes). Beckham and Yunel Escobar(notes) have no excuse, whereas Figgins falls in a special category: speedsters. It’s him and Pierre and Michael Bourn(notes) and Elvis Andrus(notes) and Ryan Theriot(notes) and …

6. Jason Bartlett(notes), who came off the disabled list this week to remedy a season that was beginning to look as lost as his swing. After slugging 14 home runs in 500 at-bats last season, Bartlett has one in 194. He followed a bad April with a brutal May, and he’s now back at the bottom of the lineup after spending the second half last season leading off.

The Rays are struggling, out of first place for the first time since April 21, and Bartlett’s 2009 looks as fluky as …

Wandy Rodriguez

7. That of Wandy Rodriguez(notes), the Houston pitcher who was a late bloomer and one of the best in the National League last season. After three mediocre seasons and a decent fourth, Rodriguez put up a 3.02 ERA in 33 starts last season, striking out 193 in 205 2/3 innings. For a 31-year-old left-hander who resorted to changing his identity 12 years ago in the Dominican Republic simply to get signed, it was a victory – one rewarded by a $5 million arbitration award.

Rodriguez’s curveball was the single best in the major leagues last season, according to FanGraphs’ pitch valuation. This year, it has been the single worst. Either Rodriguez is tipping the pitch or he is hurt. Both are possible considering his latest showings. Two starts ago, he gave up eight runs; he is the fifth pitcher this year to do so in multiple games. Last start, Texas lit him up for six runs. And as he goes downhill …

8. Jake Peavy(notes) finally seems to be trending up. The White Sox’s resurgence no doubt coincides with his, as Peavy’s three-hit shutout of Washington dropped his ERA to 5.07. It was his third straight solid start, the two others coming against Cleveland and Chicago, and while those are three offenses ranked 20th or lower in runs scored, progress is progress.

And it goes back to fastball command. In those three starts, Peavy has thrown 107 of 143 fastballs for strikes – nearly 75 percent. His fastball hovered around 67 percent strikes in his first 11 starts, during which his brutal results looked downright desirable …

9. Compared to those of his former teammate, Trevor Hoffman(notes), who lost his job as Milwaukee closer during a stretch in which he allowed 19 runs and seven home runs in 13 innings. The all-time saves leader, a future Hall of Famer, thus will end his career as a setup man.

Hoffman earned his second victory Sunday, vulturing a win as Milwaukee came back to torch Colorado in the ninth inning. Such triumphs are rare for Hoffman, who with a clean inning can slink his ERA back under 9.00. The Brewers are no good. Hoffman is too proud to think his role warrants a $7.5 million paycheck. It’s as inglorious for the 42-year-old as it is …

10.For a kid half his age, 21-year-old Rick Porcello, who this season was primed to become a star. It worked out differently, and so Porcello goes to Triple-A Toledo, a level he skipped on his way to the major leagues. The Tigers hope he drinks from the same water fountain as Armando Galarraga(notes) and Max Scherzer(notes), whose pit stops with the Mud Hens yielded better fortunes.

“I’ll be back,” Porcello said, and he will be, almost certainly before the year’s out. It will be different, though: prognostications tempered, hype muted, everyone reminded that it doesn’t always work out well. A disappointment is a disappointment, after all, only because we expect too much from those we should know are all too fallible.

Jeff Passan is a national writer for Yahoo! Sports. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jeff a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Monday, Jun 21, 2010