In the last 20 years, exactly five pitchers have won more than 45 games before their Age 24 seasons.
I won't ask you to guess the fifth, since the title gave that away. Still, I'll bet that five minutes ago you would have been surprised to find Rick Porcello (48) in this distinguished group.
Oddly, if we'd gone one deeper on the list we'd have found another pitcher with highly similar credentials to Porcello. Like Porcello, Jeremy Bonderman was a first-round draft pick. Like Porcello, Bonderman earned his bones with the Tigers. And like Porcello, Bonderman's impressive victories belied an ... well, let's just say he had a slight ERA problem. Here are the top six on the list of victories, along with their ERA+'s:
58 Hernandez (125 ERA+)
54 Sabathia (107)
48 Porcello (94)
47 Kershaw (135)
46 Willis (125)
45 Bonderman (93)
There's a tendency to think that young pitchers will only get better. But since his Age 23 season, Bonderman's won only 22 more games (pending this spring's comeback attempt). My point is that while winning a bunch of games in your early 20s is impressive, it's more impressive if you're also posting low ERA's. Porcello hasn't done that. Since his rookie season, Porcello's got a 4.75 ERA (88 ERA+).
Which helps explain why Porcello is projected to fight with Drew Smyly for the Tigers' No. 5 slot, and is widely considered to be on the trading block. Here's Ken Rosenthal, Tuesday on the MLB Network:
It is unusual, Matt. He's still just 24, and yet this is his first year of arbitration. He already has settled with the Tigers for $5.1 million. So if you're a small-market team and you're trying to acquire Rick Porcello -- and he is, as we know, quite available -- you're looking at that and saying, "Well, okay, we've got him this year at $5.1 million; that's affordable."
But if Porcello has a big year -- and a lot of people expect that, if he pitches in front of a better infield defense, with that sinker -- he's going to have a good year, well then that price rises: eight, nine, ten million next year, and then the year after, his final year of arbitration, it's even higher.
So if you're a team like the San Diego Padres, and you're looking at this, you're thinking, "Okay, great for this year, but if he does well, we really can't afford to keep him." That's why ultimately Porcello might be a better fit for a high-revenue club."
Ultimately, yes. But I'm not sure how much that should matter to a team like the San Diego Padres. What's the worst that can happen? Actually, the worst that can happen is you trade for Porcello, and then he pitches poorly while you're paying him $5.1 million. But if he pitches well, you've got all sorts of options. You can trade him this summer. You can enjoy his talents all season, then trade him next winter. You can pay him the market rate next season, especially if you're trying to compete.
If you believe Porcello's going to pitch well, there's really no reason you wouldn't want him, unless you've got five starting pitchers better than him. And most teams do not. The question would be what you're willing to give up to get him. And that's the rub. If not for that, he probably would have been traded already. Well, that and the legitimate questions about his performance.
And they are legitimate, considering all the numbers mentioned above. But is Rosenthal right? Is Porcello likely to fare better with another team? One with a better infield?
A year ago, it wasn't difficult to guess that Detroit's revamped infield -- Prince Fielder at first base! Miguel Cabrera at third base! Cavemen in the middle! -- would hurt the club's ground-ball pitchers, Porcello and Doug Fister. But at least Fister gets his share of strikeouts; Porcello is a ground-ball pitcher and a low-strikeout guy. Not a super-fun combination if you're pitching amidst a weak infield.
What would you expect in the statistics, if a ground-ball pitcher were being seriously hurt by his infield? Well, you would expect the pitcher to give up an abnormally batting average on batted balls.
In 2012, Rick Porcello gave up a .344 batting average on balls in play. That was the highest figure among the 88 pitchers who threw at least 162 innings in the majors.
The second highest? Another Tiger, as Max Scherzer gave up a .333 BABiP. Of course, Scherzer's a strikeout pitcher, so a porous defense doesn't hurt him as much.
It's not that Porcello can't win with a lousy infield. He'll just be more likely to win with a non-lousy infield. If he's pitching for the Tigers, we expect Porcello to post an ERA roughly the same as last season's, around 4.50. But pitching before just an average group of infielders in the American League, we would expect him to shave something like half a run from that ERA. And pitching in front of a good infield? In the National League?
Well, that's when $5.1 million starts to seem like a serious bargain. But first you gotta pry him loose from the Tigers. And considering how useful a dependable No. 6 starter can be for a contending team, that shouldn't be easy.