Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Game 1: Twins 3, Tigers 2 — and Porcello

The tragic number remains at six after the first game. A lot of twists and turns — a sloppy first few innings by Nick Blackburn followed by 12 straight outs; a failed suicide squeeze in the ninth; and a 10th inning homer allowed by Joe Nathan after the Twins scored twice in the top half of the inning.

The Tigers started Rick Porcello (left), the 20-year-old who opened the season as Detroit's fifth starter and ends it as their second-most reliable starter.

And so the question: Should he be the AL Rookie of the Year?

Pitchers seldom win the prize, but this has been, literally, the season of the rookie starter — there have been more starts by rookies this year than in any season since the 1800s. And yeah, there are more games, period, but the trend is there.

Porcello — 14-9, 4.04 — has been, arguably, the best of the bunch, even though he's worked all season on a short leash. He's made 30 starts but worked just 165 innings — 5.5 innings per start — and only four times been allowed to exceed 100 pitches. (He threw a season high 111 pitches Tuesday.)

Heavy exposure in the majors is usually hazardous to young arms, and Porcello entered the season with just 125 minor league innings on his resume, all in High A ball. But Jim Leyland has been successful at the tricky task of prying valuable innings out of vulnerable arms and keeping them healthy. He did it a few years ago with Justin Verlander, and he recognized years ago that Livan Hernandez could be pushed beyond the workloads of most youngsters.

Porcello has room to improve. His BB/K and K/9 rates — the two things I most want to know about a pitcher — are unimpressive at best. But he is establishing himself as an extreme groundball pitcher, the kind of pitcher the Twins always imagined Carlos Silva to be, and he may be the rare pitcher who can get by striking out less than five men per nine innings. More likely, he'll add strikeouts as the reins are loosened. And, of course, if he stays healthy.

So: Is he the Rookie of the Year? Well, I'm not sure that he's had a better season than Texas shortstop Elvis Andrus, whose hitting stats don't connect to the value of his glove. Andrus may
not win the Gold Glove — it generally takes players a while to establish their superiority to the managers and coaches around the league — but I'm convinced that he's the best at the position in the league.

If I had a vote, I'd probably go for Andrus, but I'm not certain I'm right. I know this: I'd take either one for the Twins in a heartbeat.

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