Porcello quietly goes about his business
Right-hander doesn't need to be in the spotlight to succeed
VIERA, Fla. -- Not that Rick Porcello wants the attention that Stephen Strasburg is getting, but he could be forgiven Tuesday if he felt a little ignored.
He didn't -- in fact, he kind of welcomed it -- but his manager felt he was ignored. Jim Leyland did his best to answer questions about Strasburg, but he had to wonder if anybody remembered the other guy who was pitching.
"Our starter's a year younger," Jim Leyland said, "and he won 14 games last year."
Technically, Porcello is five months younger than Strasburg, but you get the idea. It's so easy to forget, but it's easy because Porcello doesn't think about it, either. He defies his age because he doesn't act or think it, and it's a big reason why the Tigers put Porcello in their rotation to open last season.
Whether the Nationals decide something similar with Strasburg, Leyland said, is something for them to decide.
For someone who hit the national spotlight last year with his performance in the American League Central tiebreaker, someone who's now part of the Tigers' promotional campaign this season, Porcello is not a spotlight kind of guy. If he's somehow flying under the radar this year, he'll gladly stay there.
"That's completely fine with me," Porcello said with a chuckle. "My job is go out there and compete and help us win games. Whether that's the headline story or not, it doesn't change what I'm doing or trying to do."
What he's currently trying to do is essentially combine two pitchers -- the sinkerball thrower he was for the first four months last season, and the power pitcher he became down the stretch when opponents started looking for the sinker.
Somewhere in the middle is a pitcher who can overpower a hitter or drive him into the ground. There was a pitcher like that on the mound Tuesday, and it wasn't Strasburg.
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Eight of the nine balls the Nationals put in play off Porcello were grounders, including the bunt Nyjer Morgan laid down for one of two singles off Porcello in his three innings. The only ball in the air was a flyout from Cristian Guzman. Porcello needed just 32 pitches to get through three innings, and the way he was rolling, he conceivably could've gone another without hitting his pitch count.
Funny thing was, he wasn't trying to get quick ground-ball outs and get out of Space Coast Stadium. Once it became clear the Nationals were swinging early and often, and his fastball wasn't quite precise, he and catcher Alex Avila put the sinker to work.
"He had the bottom drop out on some," Leyland said.
Porcello talked about it like he was almost hoping to work on something different.
"They were putting the ball in play early, so there was really not much opportunity for strikeouts unless you're just blowing it by guys," Porcello said. "They were putting it in play, so I'll take that any day, as long as they're not hitting missiles everywhere."
Leyland isn't a pitching coach, but he readily points out what he feels is an underrated value of changing a hitter's eye level, going from high to low in the strike zone. Porcello's combination represents it, even before he throws in a developing slider and a changeup.
"Anytime you can change the plane, that's a good thing," Leyland said. "When you make the hitter adjust up and down, that's good. And he can do that."
He has had both high-groundout and high-strikeout performances in his career -- his season high in strikeouts came in that tiebreaker game against the Twins -- and he has shown the ability to adjust in the middle of the game. Those two facets together give him tremendous room for growth this year, and a big reason why he could avoid a sophomore slump that seemingly hits so many second-year pitchers who experience rookie success at a young age.
The Tigers' chances at contention ride at least in part on it. Once Detroit traded Edwin Jackson to the D-backs at the Winter Meetings, Porcello officially moved up to a front-line starter, no worse than third in the rotation. He made the team last year as the fifth starter whom the Tigers could skip at times if he needed rest. That probably won't be happening this year, but the Tigers are still going to watch his pitch counts and innings to make sure his jump in workload isn't a huge one.
Porcello is conscious of his limits, which is why he likes the pitch combination. The quicker he gets outs, the deeper he can work into games before Leyland brings the hook. He had that thought process last year, which is one reason why he defies his age.
"That's none of my business what they do over there [with Strasburg]," Leyland said. "I'm just saying, myself, I thought Porcello was poised. I didn't really care about how young he was, because I thought he was mature beyond his years and I thought he was ready to pitch in the big leagues. In our case, he, without question, was one of our five best pitchers coming out of camp last year. For that and a lot of other reasons, I thought he was good enough."
He's one of the two or three best this year, even at age 21. When someone pointed out to Porcello that he's younger than Strasburg, he just shrugged.
"I just got started a little bit earlier, I guess," Porcello said. "I mean, he came out of college and I came out of high school, so that's really all it means right now. Once you're out on the field, nobody cares how old you are. They're trying to beat you, and you're trying to beat them."
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.