Rick Porcello(notes) learned on April Fools' Day that he was coming to the major leagues. His manager did not let that pass idly. While Jim Leyland has switched from Marlboro Reds to Lights, that doesn't mean he's softened any, especially not with a green 20-year-old sitting across from his desk.
Leyland leaned in that morning and told Porcello and reliever Ryan Perry(notes), another rookie, that they hadn't made the Detroit Tigers' opening day roster. Each nodded. Then Leyland reminded them it was April Fools' Day.
"And we just sat there and didn't know what to say," Porcello said. "We weren't really sure what was going on."
Perry making the Tigers was one thing. He'd pitched three seasons in college. Porcello was less than two years removed from high school, and even if he did sign for a prep-pitcher-record $7.28 million coming out of Seton Hall Prep in New Jersey, he is in elite company. In the last 50 years, 112 starting pitchers had debuted at 20 years or younger, and that day, the Tigers told Porcello he was about to be the 113th.
"Rick Porcello was the best pitcher we had this spring," Tigers pitching coach Rick Knapp said. "We needed to take him."
Detroit spat at convention. They didn't care that in Porcello's lone minor-league season, he never pitched above Class A, nor that his curveball still needs a fair bit of polish.
"He's good," Leyland said. "He's [expletive] real good. I didn't bring him here because he's good looking."
In May, hitters have learned how good – if not good looking – Porcello really is. Over his five starts this month, he gave up five runs in 30 innings, and as he earned his sixth win Wednesday at Kansas City, Porcello finished the day with a 3.48 earned-run average, second best for a starter on the top pitching staff in the American League.
His comfort is obvious, as is the fact that Porcello is no ordinary 20-year-old. Though he still delights in things that excite all rookies – admiring Roy Halladay's(notes) greatness, getting chills at a standing ovation for Ken Griffey Jr.(notes) and getting words of wisdom from Al Kaline, or "Mr. Kaline," as Porcello prefers – the impression he delivers on the mound deviates from what's expected of someone who carries his teammates' beers from the plane but can't sip them legally.
"Once you're here, it doesn't matter how old you are," Porcello said. "You've got a job. I didn't really think of being here this quickly, but hey. There's not much that's easy. You need to learn how to survive off the field and adjust on the field, learn a lot about hitters. It's tough. It is."
And that's something with which one of his teammates is all too familiar.
Of those 113 players to debut before their 21st birthdays, only 15 have come this decade. There are stars (CC Sabathia(notes), Zack Greinke(notes), Carlos Zambrano(notes)), those with great potential (Matt Cain(notes), Clayton Kershaw(notes), Phil Hughes(notes)) and flameouts (Rick Ankiel(notes), Hayden Penn(notes), Edgar Gonzalez). And all of them were older than the second-youngest pitcher on the list, the one whose 20th-birthday gift was a start opposite Randy Johnson(notes).
On Sept. 9, 2003, a kid named Edwin Jackson(notes), born in Germany as a military brat, schooled in Georgia and finishing his first full season with the Los Angeles Dodgers organization, beat one of the greatest left-handed pitchers ever. Jackson threw six innings, gave up one run, didn't walk a hitter and struck out four. Radar guns clocked his fastball at 98 mph. He was an incredible talent, and in a place that makes stars, he was destined to be one.
"The problem was, I wasn't a pitcher," Jackson said. "I was a thrower. I got the ball, saw the glove and threw it. It was athleticism, natural talent. Once I started learning, that's when the struggles came."
And did they ever. Pitching brilliance was all Jackson knew. As a youngster, Jackson was almost exclusively a hitter. Former Dodgers scout Jim Lester, whose wife taught at Shaw High in Columbus, Ga., saw Jackson and recommended him. Even though Jackson's best college offer was at Alabama-Birmingham – as an outfielder – the Dodgers chose him in the sixth round in 2001.
Jackson showed enough prowess as a pitcher that the Dodgers stopped letting him bat in rookie ball. He dominated short-season Class A in his second year, and after blowing through Double-A in '03, the Dodgers summoned Jackson for a September trial. He finished with a 2.45 ERA, and Los Angeles figured it had a decade-long linchpin.
Then Jackson labored at Triple-A the next year and foundered in another short big-league stint. He was worse at Triple-A in 2005 and imploded with the Dodgers over six starts. Los Angeles grew impatient, and three months after he turned 22, Jackson was traded to Tampa Bay.
"When I struggled, the public saw it," Jackson said. "I had good pitching coaches. I had people telling me what to do. And in the end, none of that matters. Because you have to figure it out. You're your last line of defense.
"I was 20 in L.A. By the time you get somewhere else, it's easy. You learn struggles and adversity and everything that turns you into a stronger person."
With the Rays, Jackson found that strength. Last year, he was their fifth starter and helped contribute to a World Series run. And now, at 25, after an offseason trade to Detroit, he's been one of the AL's best pitchers. Jackson's 2.58 ERA ranks fourth in the league and a nearly 3-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio is by far the best of his career.
"I don't know that I’m a cautionary tale," Jackson said. "I think I'm a perfect example that a guy better be ready before he comes up, or it could set him back a long time."
Sometimes when Rick Porcello is sitting on the Tigers' airplane, or lounging in the dugout between starts, he'll take a deep breath and try to appreciate where he is and what he's doing. His grandfather Sam Dente was a big-league ballplayer. Porcello heard the stories. And as his body grew to 6-foot-5 and his arm started chucking 95-mph fastballs, he didn't have to dream in earnest.
"I've wanted to be in the major leagues for a long time," Porcello said, "and now that I'm here, it's difficult sometimes to take it all in."
Knapp, the pitching coach, is used to dealing with 20-year-olds. For more than a decade, he was the pitching coordinator for Minnesota, the organization that better than any develops major league-ready pitching. The Twins rarely jumped a player more than a level, let alone three, because their depth allowed them extra development time.
"You're not worried how they're going to handle the success," Knapp said. "You worry how they'll handle the failure. Because there's going to be some."
Porcello happened to join the Tigers organization when first-place aspirations turned to a last-place disaster. Now jobs are on the line. Another year in the minor leagues might behoove him. It's just not realistic.
So instead of driving his car that April Fools' Day toward Erie or Toledo, 18-hour trips both, he got it shipped to Detroit by the club, and took a charter to Toronto for the first start of his career. On April 9, he threw five innings, gave up four runs and struck out four. Porcello was 20 years, 103 days old, the 62nd-youngest pitcher to start a game in the last 50 years.
And that game, along with the next few, he said, "were almost like an experiment. I needed to figure out what would work and what wouldn't and just survive. I wanted to convince everyone that I belonged."
There is little question, at this point, that he does. Jackson looks at Porcello and doesn't see himself. He watches the skinny kid with the peach fuzz run out to the mound – he still runs – wind up in a classic motion, unleash a sinker with unfair movement and come back into the dugout with the same countenance, good inning or bad.
Which gets to the Tigers veterans enough that they feel compelled to remind Porcello he's a rookie. Recently, he received a letter from Major League Baseball warning him of an equipment violation. Some Tigers doctored the note to include a fine for $10,000.
After Porcello reacted indignantly – hey, think about how much $10,000 is to a sophomore in college, which is what Porcello should be – his teammates let him in on the joke.
"We have to give him a little trouble," Jackson said. "But in the end, we want to let him go out and have fun and figure it out himself. It's already hard enough as it is."
That much Porcello understands. Just when things start to seem easy, when he thinks he knows what breeds success, he can look just a few lockers down. The reminder will always be there, and always be willing to talk.
- Jim Leyland