Now 21, what will Porcello do for encore?
Young right-hander looks to build on solid rookie campaign
DETROIT -- What a difference a year makes for Rick Porcello. But then, when you've just turned 21, there aren't a whole lot of other years to fall back on.
This time last winter, Porcello was gearing up his workout program so that he'd report to camp in close to game shape in case the Tigers gave him a chance to compete for a job. Now, he's arguably Detroit's No. 2 starter behind Justin Verlander, or its No. 3 behind Max Scherzer.
Porcello was a glimpse at the future when he showed up at TigerFest last year, one of those prospects so many fans had heard about. Fourteen Major League wins and a notable tiebreaker performance later, everybody in Detroit knows of him.
So how did Porcello take to his newfound fame? The instant celebrity in Detroit did a pretty good job at staying anonymous most everywhere else. He came back to Michigan briefly for a getaway, and he did an autograph signing with then-Yankees prospect and future teammate Austin Jackson, but he mainly stayed out of the limelight.
"I've been mostly at home in New Jersey," Porcello said. "We went up to Vermont for a week over Christmas with the family, spent some time up there and just relaxing, hiding away in the woods. I just bought a house in Jersey, so I'm getting settled in there."
OK, he did admit to going to Las Vegas.
"I was there for business," he said, with an honest enough face to mean it.
He did not do a whole lot of throwing, not until the last few weeks. That was by design, a decision from pitching coach Rick Knapp and strength and conditioning coach Javair Gillett that was designed to rest his arm after 170 2/3 innings last year.
"I mean, the workouts haven't changed much," Porcello said, "but the throwing, I'm taking it a little bit easier now than I was last year. Last year, I wanted to come in the first day of pitchers and catchers [workouts] ready to go. This year, I'll be ready, but it's just kind of pulling the reins back a little bit."
Porcello is adjusting to a lot of things, not the least of which will take place on the field as he prepares to follow up one of the most successful seasons from a 20-year-old Major League pitcher since Dwight Gooden. A year ago, Porcello was the answer to what's next. Now, everybody wants to know what's next from him.
There'll still be an eye on his pitch counts and a meter running on his innings, though it won't be as tight as last year. Knapp and manager Jim Leyland said they haven't talked about it, but they'll put something together in Spring Training. An uptick of 10-15 innings, and outings ranging closer to 100 pitches, would be more like it.
He no longer has to worry about winning a job, much as he struggles to adjust to that. At 21, he's on his way toward being an established Major League starter, and likely far more than that.
"You don't like to just sit here and say I've got a spot on the team, because it's competitive and we've got a lot of good pitchers," Porcello said. "But they know what I can do, and I want to obviously keep growing and getting better and building off of it.
"So it's kind of a -- you've just got to find the right balance in between, not getting complacent, but at the same time making sure you're not blowing it out or being crazy the first week of camp."
Crazy for Porcello, though, is a relative term. What stood out about his rookie season, beyond the numbers, was the poise and the personality. He never seemed to show the wild emotions or the immaturity that everyone waited to see out of a 20-year-old on such a big stage. He was a level-headed kid forcing hitters a decade older, in the prime of their careers, to shake their heads in frustration.
Nowhere was that evident on a bigger stage than the tiebreaker against the Twins. Porcello pitched into the sixth inning and struck out eight, leaving with the Tigers still ahead. Detroit eventually blew the lead, but it served as a giant statement to the rest of baseball on what was ahead for this kid.
After 170 innings, his arm still felt fine, and his pitches were right where he wanted them, like all of his work over the course of the season -- first as a sinkerball pitcher, then as a power arm -- culminated in that game. Now, it's where he wants to build from going into his sophomore season.
"I think the last game of the year, that game against the Twins, I think that's the type of pitcher that I need to be," Porcello said, "to be consistently successful here and give us a chance to win. I need to mix in the four-seamer with the sinker. I can't just be one-dimensional, just throwing sinkers. And obviously, I have to keep working on my slider and get that to where it needs to be, where it's consistent and I can throw it in any count. But it's coming along. You can't get too anxious. It's like a work in progress, almost, I guess."
So is Porcello, in that respect. But his progress is already pretty far along.
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.