It happens. The Twins had it happen with Matt Garza in 2006, and the White Sox watched in wonderment as Chris Sale threw a handful of Minor League innings and just a couple months after being drafted, demolished the competition out of the bullpen. Of course, both of those players were college pitchers.
In the case of Rick Porcello, we're talking about a young man coming out of high school. Drafted 27th overall by the Tigers during the 2007 draft, Porcello signed late and didn't make his professional debut until 2008. He'd pitch one season in the Minors, all at Class A Lakeland, posting a 2.66 ERA over 24 starts. Then in 2009, despite not posting overwhelming peripherals the year before in A ball, the Tigers decided to make an extremely aggressive move and start him in the Majors. The believed that despite the lack of a polished secondary offering, Porcello's plus sinker could make him an effective starter right away, despite being just 20 years of age.
To an extent, they were right. Kid Rick would go on to throw 170 innings while posting a 3.96 ERA with a ground ball rate of 54%. That solid ERA however hid some ugly flaws. For one, Porcello didn't miss bats (4.69 K/9) and his control was more good (2.74 BB/9) than great. Impressive performance aside, Porcello's 4.77 FIP in 2009 foreshadowed rougher seas ahead.
We all know what happened last year, Porcello's lack of complimentary pitches caught up to him. There were many times throughout the season where his sinker simply wasn't sinking. If you have other stuff that you can rely on, you can find ways to succeed - or at least persevere - without your best fastball. But in the Tigers haste to get Porcello to the Majors so soon, they robbed him of important developmental time. Where most high school pitchers get two or three years on the short end to refine their craft, Porcello had just the one season. So when his sinker wasn't diving, he had little else to turn to and it was of little surprise to see Major League hitters turn him inside out.
2010 would end up being a nightmare for the young Porcello. After such a great rookie season, he'd go on to post a 4.92 ERA over 162 MLB innings, sandwiched around a brief trip to Toledo to help him regain his confidence. But like the 2009 season in reverse, Porcello actually underperformed his FIP (4.31) in 2010.
He still hasn't shown any improved ability to miss bats over the course of a season, but for Tigers fans looking for a silver lining to the 2010 season, Porcello's final twelve starts could provide at least a little. I cherry picked the sample somewhat to be certain, but during those games he upped his strikeout rate to 5.17, while lowering his walk rate to 1.38. That might not seem like much, but where Porcello has survived more or less on the knife edge of the peripherals the first two seasons, even marginal improvements to his strikeout and walk rates make him a far surer bet to be a successful pitcher.
I understand that a lot of optimism still surrounds Rick Porcello, and rightly so, but his development has clearly been stunted somewhat. There is nothing that can be done at this point to make up for the loss of development time the past two years, and unless he's adding a new pitch, odds are his secondary stuff isn't going to simply turn plus without him going to Minors and getting the reps he'd need to do so. But if he can continue to refine his command, cut down on the walks even more, and improve his strikeout rate, even marginally, he goes from a 1.5K/BB pitcher to a 3K/BB pitcher with plus ground ball marks.
The later type of pitcher is a far more likely bet to be able to sustain Major League success, and it's actually an attainable goal for Porcello. Unfortunately projecting a pitchers development isn't at all like projecting a hitters development. Whereas hitters tend to have fairly predictable and gradual improvement rates in various skill sets, pitchers aren't really like that at all. Instead, a pitchers improvements (or declines) tend to come suddenly as they develop a new pitch, refine an old one, or experience a velocity change.
Save for something of that nature occurring, pitchers tend to stay the same. The good thing for someone like Porcello is that he has the raw talents to have something great happen. He's the kind of pitcher with whom something could just click. You can look at a lot of pitchers throughout history for this kind of effect, but I think one that a lot of people overlook is Roy Halladay.
Like Porcello, Halladay came up and experienced some success at a young age, posting a 3.92 ERA over 149 innings in 1999. Also like Porcello, the ERA was a cover for some ugly peripherals. Despite impressive ground ball rates, Halladay had a nearly even K (4.94) / BB (4.76) ratio. The following season Halladay got hammered, posting a 10.64 ERA over 67 stomach turning innings of work that makes Porcello's 2010 look downright spectacular.
Of course, after that disastrous season, Halladay dropped his slider, converted to a hard cutter and the rest is pretty much history. And here's the thing, in making those changes to his repertoire, Halladay didn't make seismic changes in the sort of pitcher he was - he simply made marginal improvements to his strikeout and walk rates. Just like Porcello could.
Now lets not go and get all crazy. I'm not trying to say that Rick Porcello is Roy Halladay waiting to happen. But there isn't any reason he can't turn himself into a consistently effective pitcher who doesn't need to rely on a .277 BABIP and 75% LOB rate to make himself look good. The talent is there and with a little refinement, he should be a solid #3 type starter for a long time to come.
Corey Ettinger is a Senior Writer for Baseball Digest as well as a proud contributor to both 612Sports.net, 312Sports.com, and 313sports.com. He also provides extensive analysis of the American League Central Division at his own blog, AL Central In Focus. Be sure to follow me on Twitter @Coreyettinger for the latest updates, random thoughts and general tomfoolery.