For a 20-year-old thrust into the Major Leagues, Rick Porcello defied a lot of expectations this year to reach some lofty marks and earn mention in the same sentence with Dwight Gooden. Now it's time to see how he stacks up against the rest of the American League's rookie crop this season.
The bigger-name Major League awards start off Monday with the AL Rookie of the Year, and there's plenty of reason for Porcello to earn serious consideration for what would be Detroit's second winner in four years, joining Justin Verlander.
What began as a long-shot experiment in Spring Training to jump the former first-round Draft pick from Class A ball, turned into a big league effort well beyond Porcello's age as the youngest player in the league.
His early-season success was a bonus to the front-line pitching that helped Detroit move in front in the division in May and stay there through the break. Once he encountered his midsummer struggles, his second-half adjustment from a sinkerballer to a little more of a power pitcher made him Detroit's most effective starter not named Verlander.
Without Porcello's 14 wins and 170 2/3 innings, the Tigers probably would've lost out in the AL Central race before the tiebreaker. And without his 5 2/3 innings with a lone earned run in that showdown against the Twins, the Tigers wouldn't have had a chance to take the tiebreaker into extra innings.
He was a unanimous pick as the Tigers Rookie of the Year a week and a half ago. In many years, he'd be in a select group of contenders for the AL honor, if not a favorite. It may be his lone piece of bad timing this year that his arrival came in the same year as White Sox infielder Gordon Beckham, Rays starter Jeff Niemann and A's All-Star closer Andrew Bailey.
All Niemann did was lead the defending AL champs in wins and ERA while more than making up for the loss of Edwin Jackson. Beckham drove in 63 runs in just 103 games while banging out 14 homers and 28 doubles. Bailey not only racked up 26 saves, but he dominated opponents in the process, scattering 49 hits over 83 1/3 innings with a 1.83 ERA and 91 strikeouts.
Great as those numbers are, none of those other candidates played as big of a role in a pennant race as Porcello did in Detroit. The stretch run of that race brought out some of the best in Porcello. He went 5-2 with a 3.07 ERA over his final 13 starts, allowing just 66 hits over 73 1/3 innings. Just 18 of those hits went for extra bases.
How Porcello finished surprised even him.
"This being my first year, I didn't know how I was going to feel coming down the stretch," Porcello said in the season's final week. "I can remember last year down the stretch, the last couple starts I had, feeling really good. And this year, I didn't know what I was going to feel like. I'm a little surprised. At the same time, I'm thankful for the rest that they've given me and the work that we've done."
Ultimately, Porcello's chances might rest on how late in the season members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America waited to vote. By rule, ballots were due at the start of the postseason, but the Tigers-Twins tiebreaker was technically a regular-season game. Voters who waited, wanting to watch Porcello in the biggest game of his young career, could've turned in their ballots that night or the next morning.
If several voters waited, they saw a 20-year-old commanding a game for five innings -- against a team that had worn him down two other times in the previous few weeks -- before giving up a big home run in the sixth, and they likely would've been impressed.
"A 20-year-old kid grew up in front of everybody's eyes today," catcher Gerald Laird said at the time. "He had all the excuses in the world. He was young, inexperienced. And he went out there and manned up. He didn't look like a rookie out there."
Porcello didn't take much solace in his season after the last game. But now he might be able to look back and get something out of it.