DETROIT -- Rick Porcello wasn't the American League Rookie of the Year, as it turned out. But that doesn't dampen the impact he made on the American League, or the impact he could be making for years to come.
As the Tigers move ahead in what will likely be an offseason of change, Porcello is a potential cornerstone at age 21. Though he finished third in AL Rookie of the Year balloting, won by A's closer Andrew Bailey, he has the chance to make the bigger long-term difference. It isn't just about the numbers he put up at age 20, defying his age, but the capacity to learn and desire to compete.
Two years after the Tigers took their share of criticism for signing the high school phenom to a record-setting contract out of the First-Year Player Draft, he gives team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski a very good feeling about the future.
"I like that feeling," Dombrowski said at season's end. "He is a quality pitcher that's only going to get better. He has great makeup, a great work ethic and projects to be a No. 1 starter in the rotation. Those are not easy to find."
Porcello garnered seven first-place votes, eight votes for second and five for third place out of 28 ballots cast by members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America. He was left out of the top three on eight ballots, but in a crowded AL rookie field, nobody cracked the top three on every ballot.
Bailey won with 13 first-place votes, six for second and five for third, good for 88 total points. Rangers shortstop Elvis Andrus barely beat out Porcello for second with one more first-place vote.
It's an interesting question what, if any, impact Porcello's performance in Detroit's AL Central tiebreaker at Minnesota made on the balloting. Though he didn't earn the win, his 5 2/3 innings with one earned run kept them in the game and gave them a chance while the Tigers offense struggled to add runs following Miguel Cabrera's early homer.
Porcello's performance might have won over some voters who waited until the last possible moment to turn in their ballots, which were due by the start of postseason play. Since the tiebreaker counted as an extra regular-season game, ballots weren't due until the start of the Division Series the next day.
Nonetheless, Justin Verlander remains the last Tiger to win AL Rookie of the Year honors, having done so during Detroit's World Series run in 2006. Still, the expectations surrounding Porcello are similar.
Porcello's 14 wins, the most by a 20-year-old since Dwight Gooden in 1985, led all AL rookies to go with a 3.96 ERA, while his 170 2/3 innings ranked third. His ratio of 2.23 ground balls for every fly ball ranked second among all AL pitchers, regardless of experience level, and his 24 ground-ball double plays ranked fifth.
Just as impressive, Porcello thrived down the stretch as the AL Central race tightened. 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. He lost only one of his final eight starts, and his tiebreaker performance gave Detroit a shot at winning the division before falling in extra innings.
"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."
Come next year, he won't be a rookie, and it'll be interesting to see his next step of progression. That will be up to pitching coach Rick Knapp, bullpen coach Jeff Jones and the rest of the Tigers coaching staff. If it works as well as their plan this year, they should be happy.
When the Tigers signed Porcello to a record-setting contract out of high school as their first-round selection in the 2007 First-Year Player Draft, his talent drew comparisons to such gifted arms as Josh Beckett. While some projected he could advance quickly through the system, team officials tempered expectations, saying they would take their time to protect his arm. With that in mind, they limited his innings and pitches in 2008 while forcing him to choose one breaking pitch and go with it, rather than mix sliders and curveballs.
Once it became clear in Spring Training that Porcello was the best of their fifth starter candidates, Tigers coaches had to come up with a workload plan for him to justify the jump from Class A ball to the big leagues in his second pro season. They skipped his turn in the rotation just twice all year, but they didn't allow him to top 100 pitches in a game until late August, the 24th of his 31 starts. They also never started him on short rest.
Dombrowski best summed up the caution used with Porcello when he was asked at season's end about the decision not to start him on short rest in the season's final weekend.
"If something happens to him, you'd never forgive yourself," Dombrowski said.
Porcello made his limits work. After earning his first big league win April 19 at Seattle amid three losses in that month, he went 5-0 in May, allowing five runs on 22 hits over 30 innings. In the process, he became just the sixth pitcher age 20 or younger to win four consecutive starts, and the first since Kerry Wood in 1998.
He stood 8-4 in late June before a midsummer swoon raised serious questions whether he was out of gas. He had a second wind coming, but more importantly, he showed his ability to adjust his game. Working with Knapp, Jones and Laird, Porcello went from primarily a sinkerball pitcher to more of a power arm, mixing in four-seam fastballs.
Porcello gave up more fly balls, but fewer home runs. He held the Indians to a run on four hits over eight innings Aug. 1 at Cleveland and rolled from there, rattling off five quality starts and three more outings of 5 2/3 innings and one run allowed.
"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.
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.