Rick Porcello was prepared for an ugly beginning, in one respect.
His entire approach, even last season, was based on constant change. Before each outing, he would make out a handwritten game plan then toss it away. He picked up that habit in 2013.
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His consistency lent itself to a different image. An idea that he found the right formula. All his time searching with the Tigers (and a little bit more with the Red Sox) paid off — right?
Well, yes. But he found no formula, even in his march to the 2016 Cy Young.
Alex Avila of the Tigers has caught Porcello more than anyone else in the Red Sox righty’s career, 99 regular-season games.
“He always struggled between, is he a sinker ball pitcher or can he be … a power pitcher,” Avila recalled. “He was constantly trying to find that right mix. And be able to use both. And that was something for a few years that it was just a back and forth, give and take, kind of like a trial and error. And his stuff, and his ability, his talent was so good… he was much farther along than most guys at his age.
“He was still producing. Even though he was trying to figure himself out. For a lot of guys at his age, when they were coming up, or doing that in the minor leagues, he was doing that in the big leagues.”
Porcello may have a greater sense of identity now. He must. But he knew opponents could in fact find a way to get to him, as the Rays did in Friday night’s 4 1/3-inning, eight-run performance.
Even after a year where everything clicked — and before he threw a pitch this season — Porcello was prepared for a continued search.
Or whatever you want to call it.
“I don’t like to call it searching,” Porcello said in spring training. “There have been times throughout the course of my career where you’re searching, but it’s more, I think with my repertoire and stuff. There was adjustments that needed to be made. I had some success when I first got into the league, and then I was getting hit around and I had to make some adjustments with different looks and things like that.
“I think that that’s always going to go on. There’s a ton of information out about you. Hitters see you enough to be able to make an adjustment now to what you’re doing. And then you’re going to see that they’ve made that adjustment, and then try to combat it with something different on your own then.”
Perhaps Porcello found a style last year, but that style isn’t permanent. He was forward thinking enough to consider the purely hypothetical need to add a pitch someday.
“I don’t know what position physically I’ll be in or anything like that,” Porcello said of the future. “The bottom line is, you know, if I don’t feel like I have a good four-seamer or my change-up isn’t working, I got to come up with something that looks like that, or a changeup and I start throwing a little split.”
No, he doesn’t throw a split now. He was just throwing it out there (so to speak).
“If I had to come up with one because I didn’t have a changeup, and it got to the point where it was so bad,” Porcello said. “Those are the kinds of things that happen all the time. I don’t think that you’re ever a finished product in this game. You know, the guys that are, I mean, hats off to ‘em. They’re just at that level where they don’t have to continue to do that.”
Those guys don’t really exist, though, unless they throw incredibly hard. And even velocity has an expiration date.
The frustration in Porcello’s time in Detroit was obvious to Avila.
Conceivably, he'll feel it again now.
“Absolutely (I saw it). He wanted to be a great pitcher,” Avila said before the season. “He wanted to get to a level where he’s at now. You know, and work for it, and the times that he didn’t succeed, of course he was frustrated. But he took it the right way. He took that frustration and tried to build on that.
“I know a big help for him was Jeff Jones, our pitching coach at the time. They worked really hard together as far as trying to figure out what kind of pitcher he was going to be. Like I said, there was a lot of trial and error over his time here.”
It remains so for a Cy Young winner.
What Porcello can fall back on is his longtime openness to change. Those notes Avila saw Porcello begin to take himself.
“Early on, he relied on a lot on Jeff and what I think as a staff we had for information,” Avila said. “As a pitcher, if you also not only take that information, but also take it upon yourself to learn it yourself... you’ll have that much more of an advantage going into the game. Because in the game for a pitcher, there’s nobody out there telling you. And you have to be able to have that awareness.”
Porcello might not have an award-winning season awaiting him again. But awareness, he definitely has that.