Over much of the offseason, a lot was said about the Detroit Tigers heading into 2013 with Bruce Rondon slated to close. Rondon, 22, has a big fastball, and is a quality prospect. But it turns out there’s more to pitching than throwing really hard, and Rondon has limited experience in the upper minors and a demonstrated inability to throw strikes consistently, especially against left-handed hitters. Right now, in Tigers camp, Rondon is being given special instruction, and while there’s plenty of time in spring for him to right the ship, it’s looking less likely by the day that Rondon will close out of the gate. The Tigers want to go to the playoffs, see, and a shaky rookie closer isn’t going to help them if he’s sufficiently shaky.
Rumor has it the Tigers are exploring the current closer market. How important is a closer to the Tigers? On the one hand, closer Jose Valverde had some memorable meltdowns last October, nearly costing the Tigers their season. On the other hand, with Valverde, the Tigers won their division and advanced to the World Series before getting swept away by San Francisco. So Valverde didn’t bring everything down. But the Tigers want security — security in the person of not-Valverde, it turns out — and among the considered options, Rick Porcello makes for a curious one.
Porcello, obviously, would be an internal option, a decision made instead of swinging a trade. This all started on Tuesday. Jason Beck:
As questions from reporters go, Rick Porcello as a closer wasn’t the craziest idea that manager Jim Leyland has ever heard. Judging by his answer on Monday, it wasn’t even high up on the crazy list.
“I don’t know that that’s necessarily a wild thought,” Leyland answered.
That’s it. It’s hardly anything, but another way of saying “hardly anything” is “something”, and now we have the idea of Rick Porcello closing on our minds. Let’s discuss!
Would the Tigers do it?
No, probably not, not barring emergency. From earlier Wednesday:
Leyland today on Porcello as a closer: “I don’t think it’s a far-out idea. I just think it’s highly unlikely.”
— Jason Beck (@beckjason) March 6, 2013
That would be a somewhat radical switch. Contenders generally try not to make radical switches this close to the season. Porcello thinks of himself as a starter, he’s an effective starter, and he’s a starter who’s presently the subject of trade rumors, specifically because he can start. Additionally, if the Tigers are looking for an established, proven closer, you’d think they’d want someone with at least one career save. Porcello isn’t not an option, but right now, like Leyland said, it’s unlikely. Porcello might not be into it, and the Tigers might not be into it. Another team might prefer to trade for Porcello and make him its own.
Could Porcello do it?
This is guesswork — Porcello has never closed — but, yeah, probably. Point number one is that Porcello is an average or above-average starter. A lot of people think of Porcello as just being a guy who doesn’t generate many strikeouts, and strikeouts are important, but Porcello has a career 100 FIP- and a career 98 xFIP-. So that’s our starting spot, and as many of you should already know, pitchers tend to improve when they transition from starting to relieving. They throw harder, they put more effort into everything, and they can eliminate worse pitches. They don’t have to go through the other lineup multiple times. Probably, Porcello’s peripherals would become stronger were he to switch to relief.
It’s unlikely that Porcello would suddenly become a dominant closer, an elite closer, but he could be an effective one. One question is whether his velocity would get higher, since last year he gained about two ticks while still starting. Maybe, instead of gaining more oomph, he’d just sustain his new level. But he wouldn’t throw slower. As for platoon concerns, Porcello has faced 44% righties over his career. Last year, closers pitched with the platoon advantage 50% of the time, so Porcello could see slightly fewer lefties. That would, obviously, help him out, since he hasn’t established a reverse platoon split.
You know who isn’t unlike Rick Porcello? Orioles closer Jim Johnson, of whom the Orioles are quite fond. Johnson’s a groundball guy more than he’s a strikeout guy, and he was just an All-Star. Between 1999-2001, as a sinkerballing reliever for the Red Sox, Derek Lowe struck out 19.4% of batters, with a 71 FIP-. Between 2002-2004, as a sinkerballing starter for the Red Sox, Lowe struck out 13.3% of batters, with an 87 FIP-. As a Reds reliever in 2002, Danny Graves generated 13.7% strikeouts. As a Reds starter in 2003, Graves generated 7.7% strikeouts. As a Reds reliever again in 2004, Graves generated 13.8% strikeouts. Braden Looper‘s another similar guy who switched from relieving to starting, and with him there are similar patterns. The C.J. Wilson example remains instructive. These are generally examples of relievers changing to starters, but we can learn from their transitions. They were less successful on a rate basis out of the rotation, because starting is more of a challenge. As a reliever, Porcello would probably get more strikeouts, and he’d probably be good. Good enough to close for a contender without maiming its hopes and dreams.
For what it’s worth, though, one can’t ignore that Porcello would still be vulnerable to mediocre — or worse — infield defense. But every pitcher would pitch in front of that defense, and Porcello would rely less on grounders as a reliever than he does as a starter, most likely.
Should the Tigers do it?
Here’s the most important question, and it’s a question without a clear answer. We don’t know, precisely, how Porcello would feel about being a closer instead of a starter. We don’t know what other teams might be offering the Tigers in Porcello trade talks, and we don’t know what would happen to Porcello’s value were he to stop starting, at least temporarily.
What we do know is that, right now, Porcello and Drew Smyly are fighting for the fifth rotation slot. The loser of the battle, probably, will end up in the bullpen, probably as a long reliever. So already the Tigers are thinking about having a starter relieve. There’s a difference between long relief and short relief, but there’s a far greater difference between long relief and starting, and Smyly demonstrated a year ago that he can be an effective starter in the bigs. Porcello has seniority, but Smyly has talent. If it’s already an option that Porcello could open the season as a reliever, it isn’t that far out there that Porcello could open the season as a closer. If he’s good, why not have him throw the highest-leverage innings?
No decision would have to be permanent. Porcello could be changed back to being a starter, in the event of an injury, or in the event of development and improvement by Rondon. Porcello couldn’t just switch back overnight, but it wouldn’t have to be a long process, given his experience. Right now, Porcello might be the best closer candidate on the Tigers’ roster, and the Tigers want to win right away. Smyly doesn’t seem to be any worse as a starter, so Porcello could plug a hole, which would have value. The goal is to win and having Porcello close might bump up the Tigers’ 2013 projections.
A risk is that Porcello might not be able to do it, but then the experiment could be abandoned. A risk is that Porcello could diminish his trade value, but if the Tigers liked what was out there being offered, they probably would’ve taken a deal by now. There’s talk the Tigers might want to deal Porcello for a proven closer. Would the proven closer be any better than Porcello as a closer?
On paper, there’s enough sense here that the idea isn’t ridiculous. The Tigers, right now, have no closer, and two viable #5 starters. One of those #5 starters could conceivably close, and then the Tigers look better. Generally, fans aren’t fond of the idea of turning a starter into a reliever, but would it be any different than trading Porcello for a reliever? Porcello could always start again later on — he’s shown that he can do that. Of course, the game isn’t played on paper, and the Tigers value things like “provenness” and “contentment”. The Tigers, ideally, want a closer who’s shown he can close, and Porcello might not be open to a switch. It’s probably too much for the Tigers to do this close to opening day. But if the Tigers were to do it, just in case — it’d be ballsy, but it wouldn’t be absurd. Rick Porcello could probably close. Rick Porcello could probably be a good closer for a should-be playoff team.