Rick Porcello has changed his pitching mix this year. Most noticeably, he’s ditched his cutter for a curveball. The move was done for a variety of reasons, but the work continues to this day. Because even once you make a change, you have to work hard to maintain it.
The Tiger starter told me that he “really dedicated” himself to working on his curve this offseason, mostly because the cutter/slider “wasn’t really working.” Since it moves left to right, it cuts right into the meat of the plate for lefties. “The curveball is a more effective pitch to left-handers, which is something I struggle with,” Porcello admitted to me before his team played the White Sox in Chicago this week. Over his career, the pitcher has allowed lefties lower strikeout and grounder rates and higher walk rates.
So this past winter, Porcello went to work: “The first thing I did this offseason was to really fine-tune my mechanics to where I was getting to a consistent release point, keeping everything the same, and from there, basically throwing my curveball out of the same arm slot as my fastball and changeup and just getting consistent with it.” A lot of throwing sessions later, he was a three-pitch pitcher coming into the season.
This year, he’s more than tripled his usage of the curve against lefties. It’s now his primary pitch when ahead against lefties. And he has the highest swinging strike, strikeout and ground-ball rates of his career. His FIP against lefties — career 4.47 — dropped to 3.81. For the first time in his career, he’s above-average against lefties.
That didn’t mean the curve didn’t need more refinement after the gong sounded. “It’s a pitch that still, there are times when I throw it in a game and it’s really good, and there are games when it’s a little off, it’s a work in progress,” Porcello said. In the offseason, he had the benefit of time and as many bullpen sessions as he wanted to throw. In-season, he’s more focused, so he uses video. “I’ll take a game where I’ve thrown it well, and then I’ll take the game last one and look at my release point, and my hand, and my head, and the distance from my hand relative to my head, he said, adding that “When my hand gets too far away from my head it gets lazy.”
Here is what he means in graph format. These release points are not necessarily cleaned up for each park situation, but you can see a fairly large difference from his first four starts in April and the rest of his work through April.
Here is a breakdown of the difference between his early April release points and those he’s shown since then, using BrooksBaseball. If you prefer GIF format, here are two curves from the most disparate game charts, April 20 (on the left), and April 27 (on the right). (Wish they’d played for different camera views those dates.)
Even beyond any change on the rubber, it seems that his curveball sometimes drifts. Combating that drift is the kind of work Porcello has to do to make sure his curveball is coming out of the same slot as his other pitches.
Porcello has made some other, smaller changes. For one, he says that he’s thrown more four-seamers this year, “especially up in the zone with two strikes to try and elevate the eye level.” While it’s not necessarily a pitch he’ll go to in a big situation, it does give him a “different look.” His “main thing is to get ground balls” on his sinker low in the zone still, but “to have the ability to strike guys out is important, especially in this league.” From the heatmaps, it seems like that might always have been part of his arsenal, but the percentages do agree that he’s throwing the four-seamer a little bit more to both lefties and righties than he has in the past.
And then there’s just the work he has to do to be ready for each game. Porcello takes the scouting report that is given to him by the team and goes through it like any other pitcher, but then he writes up his own attack plan for each hitter. “Every pitcher is different and every pitcher has different weapons,” he pointed out, adding that the Tigers have “a couple starting pitchers on this team that throw 98 miles per hour.” So he has to figure out his own unique attack plan that fits his skillset.
Once his start is over, there’s a respite. And then he’s back to the video, to check his arm slot. Back to the video, to see which hitters struggled with which pitches. Back to the bullpen mound, to make sure the mechanics are in order. Into the scouting reports, and then back on the bump to see how the curve is working that day.