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Alex Speier

Is Rick Porcello ready to be Red Sox’ ace pitcher?

Rick Porcello was 76-63 in six seasons in Detroit.
Rick Porcello was 76-63 in six seasons in Detroit.AP

Rick Porcello has been a good but not great pitcher for six major league seasons. So why is he the consensus view as the one pitcher in the Red Sox rotation with the greatest chance of emerging as an ace?

The righthander’s performance to date, at least in a vacuum, hardly suggests such a stature. While playing for a Tigers team that contended perennially while he was with them, he went 76-63 with a 4.30 ERA while averaging 179 innings a year. That career ERA qualifies as slightly worse than the league average standard during his time.

One reason for optimism, however, comes from looking at other pitchers who had thrown at least 800 innings without an “ace” caliber year through age 25. Of 38 players who met that condition, 16 percent had an ace-caliber breakout at age 26.

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As a groundball pitcher who typically had a poor Tigers infield defense playing behind him, it is easy to conclude that Porcello would have had better numbers with a better defense behind him. If one strips out the impact of defense on balls in play, the stew of Porcello’s career strikeout rate (5.5 per nine innings), walk rate (2.2 per nine innings), and home runs allowed (0.9 per nine innings) suggest a pitcher with a Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) mark of 4.03, according to FanGraphs.

Still, even that mark is only slightly better than league average during Porcello’s career, as the righthander’s FIP has been only 3 percent better than league average. In short, none of the numbers Porcello has posted in his career to date are extraordinary – save for one.

The fascination with Porcello and the basis for the idea that he has breakout potential relates largely to one statistic: his age. Porcello turned 26 in December, and given that he posted the best ERA (3.43) of his career in 2014, along with career highs in wins (15) and innings (204 1/3), it seems natural to imagine there’s more in the tank, and that the gains of last season (when his ERA, adjusted for park effects, was roughly 16 percent better than league average) could represent a foundation for an emergence as a top-of-the-rotation starter.

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But how likely is that, based on Porcello’s statistical profile? How often does a pitcher who’s performed at a level best characterized as league average to somewhat better than that suddenly see his career take off at 26?

Certainly, there are some names of pitchers whose performances through their age 25 season offer cause for optimism about what might be in store for Porcello. Of the 112 pitchers to accumulate 800 or more innings through their age 25 seasons in the expansion era (1961 to the present), Porcello finds himself in some good company (as measured by FIP-, or FIP relative to league average, where 100 is league average, and anything below that is slightly better).

Through the same age, Tom Glavine’s career FIP was 5 percent better than league average; ditto Jim Palmer and Don Sutton. Those three pitchers all enjoyed long, wildly successful careers that culminated in Hall of Fame plaques.

But Glavine and Palmer had already performed at different levels than Porcello. Palmer had been an All-Star twice, won 20 games twice, and had posted sub-3.00 ERAs four times. Glavine’s breakout had come as a 25-year-old, when he won the Cy Young with a 20-win season that also saw him post an ERA (adjusted for park) that was more than 50 percent better than league average.

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Becoming an ace after 25
Thirty-eight pitchers have thrown 800+ innings by age 25 without an "ace" year in which their ERA+ was 125 or better. Red bar denotes an ace season at age 26.
Don Sutton
5 total ace seasons
Catfish Hunter
3
Jerry Reuss
3
Brad Radke
2
Don Wilson
2
Doyle Alexander
2
Mike Hampton
2
Brett Myers
1
Claude Osteen
1
Don Robinson
1
Mickey Lolich
1
Ray Culp
1
Ryan Dempster
1
Sid Fernandez
1
24 players tied
0
DATA: baseball-reference.com
Alex Speier/Globe Staff

In many ways, Sutton represents something close to a best-case scenario for Porcello. He hadn’t produced a statistically elite season through his age 25 season, though he’d come close in both 1966 (when his 2.99 ERA was 9 percent better than league average and his 2.53 FIP was 19 percent better than the league) and 1968 (the Year of the Pitcher, when his 2.08 FIP was likewise about 19 percent better than league average).

As a 26-year-old, Sutton then began a run as one of the game’s best pitchers. He went 17-12 with a 2.54 ERA (ERA+ of 127) and a 2.16 FIP (a FIP- of 68) as a 26-year-old in 1971, backed that up with two similarly dominant years in 1972 and 1973 and then proved sufficiently durable and successful (though rarely elite beyond his age 28 season) to claim 324 career wins.

Still, Sutton doesn’t necessarily represent a likeliest case. Porcello is one of 111 pitchers who have thrown at least 800 innings through their age 25 seasons in the expansion era (1961 to present). Of those, 86 have produced what might be described as ace-caliber seasons in which their ERA+ (ERA adjusted for park factors) was 25 percent better than league average.

Porcello doesn’t belong to that group, at least not yet. So how many of the previous 110 pitchers with at least 800 career innings at such a young age achieved dominance at age 26 or later?

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First, the cold splash of reality: There are 24 pitchers in the group who never had an ERA+ of 125 or better in their careers, who never achieved what might be characterized as ace-like dominance. Most arrived to the majors with the fanfare of a phenom but, while most enjoyed at least solid big league careers, they nonetheless represented studies in the incomplete fulfillment of anticipated potential.

That said, there are 14 pitchers in the group who had their first ace-caliber year with an ERA+ of 125 or better after turning 26. Of those, six – Sutton, Catfish Hunter, Brad Radke, Don Wilson, Jerry Reuss, and Mike Hampton – had that breakout in their age 26 seasons, with a couple of those (Sutton and Hunter) enjoying Hall of Fame careers.

So, in a small sample of the 38 pitchers in the expansion era who, like Porcello, had accumulated at least 800 career innings without an ace-caliber year through age 25, 16 percent had an ace-caliber breakout in their age 26 seasons. That history offers considerable promise to both the pitcher and the Red Sox for 2015, even if providing anything but a certainty at the top of the rotation.


Follow Alex Speier on Twitter at @alexspeier.