By John Perrotto
The initial feeling is to ask Rick Porcello to produce some form of government-verified identification, such as a driver's license or birth certificate.
The Detroit Tigers right-hander seem like he needs to prove his age. Certainly he has to be older than 25. After all, he has been part of the Tigers' rotation going back to the days of Denny McLain and Mickey Lolich, hasn't he?
"I get that a lot," Porcello said. "People always think I'm older than I am."
It primarily has to do with the fact Porcello has been in the Tigers' rotation since the beginning of the 2009 season, except for a four-start detour to Triple-A Toledo in 2010. He was just 20 when he made his major league debut, and less than two years removed from being Detroit's first-round pick in the 2007 amateur draft from Seton Hall Preparatory School in West Orange, N.J.
Some of it also comes from Porcello carrying himself like someone who is much older than 25. He was an honors student in high school and has the type of serious side that ensures he will never be the cutup of the clubhouse. Even his favorite activity away from the ballpark -- fly fishing -- has an element of seriousness to it.
"It's just the way I've always been," Porcello said. "It's a credit to my parents. They raised my two brothers and I to be disciplined people. I think it has served me well. I like to have fun and I enjoy playing baseball but I'm also serious about the game. I want to do well. I want to help my team win as many games as I can."
Porcello has played in one of the Tigers' golden eras, pitching for teams that reached the American League Championship Series in 2011 and 2013 and got to the World Series in 2012. Detroit looks like a strong contender again, as they are 27-16 this season despite losing their last four games, and lead the AL Central by 4 ½ games over the Minnesota Twins.
Never before has Porcello been such a big part of the Tigers' success. He has won each of his last six starts and is 7-1 with a 2.91 ERA in eight starts.
"It's fun to watch him pitch," Tigers right fielder Torii Hunter said. "He just keeps getting better and better each time out. You can see his confidence is rising now. He feels like he's going to win every time he starts and we feel the same way."
It is not that Porcello hasn't won before. He registered at least 10 victories in each of his first five seasons. Entering the season, he had a 61-50 career record, though it was offset at least somewhat by a lackluster 4.51 ERA. This season, though, he has been consistently excellent, giving up two runs or less in six of his eight starts.
First-year Tigers manager Brad Ausmus didn't see enough of Porcello in the past to compare the 2014 version to other seasons. However, Ausmus believes the key to Porcello's success has been a willingness to use his entire arsenal of pitches instead of being so dependent on his sinker, a theory confirmed by the pitcher and advocated by pitching coach Jeff Jones.
"It's hard to be a starting pitcher in the major leagues when you're throwing the same pitch over and over," Ausmus said. "The hitters are eventually going to comfortable hitting that pitch. You need to have something to keep the hitters off that pitch."
According to FanGraphs, Porcello used his sinker 49.0 percent of the time in 2010, 42.3 percent in 2011, 45.2 percent in 2012 and 39.2 percent last season. This year, that number is down to 27.0 percent, and he is throwing his four-seam fastball more often at 32.3 percent. Porcello is also throwing 15.2 percent curveballs, 13.2 percent sliders and 12.3 percent changeups.
"It's made a big difference," Porcello said. "I feel like I have a lot more ways to get hitters out than I did in other years. I've had my ups and downs in my career. This season, though, I think I've started to consolidate everything I've learned since I've been in the major leagues."
Though "pitch to contact" might be the most overused pitching term of the 2010s, Porcello fits the profile as he has averaged just 5.6 strikeouts per nine innings in his career. Thus, he has always been reliant on his defense.
This season, he has benefitted from a new-look Tigers' defensive lineup in which catcher Alex Avila, center fielder Austin Jackson and Hunter are the lone remaining holdovers in the same position from last season. Third baseman Miguel Cabrera shifted to first base, rookie Nick Castellanos has taken over at third, left fielder Rajai Davis was signed as a free agent and second baseman Ian Kinsler and shortstop Andrew Romine were acquired in trades.
"Guys are making all kinds of plays behind me," Porcello said. "Our defense is excellent. In Rajai, Austin and Torii, you have three center fielders who chase down everything. The entire infield has been outstanding. That's definitely part of the reason I've gotten off to such a good start."
Porcello is finally starting to get noticed in a starting rotation that includes an AL Most Valuable Player in Justin Verlander, an AL Cy Young Award winner in Max Scherzer and 2013's AL ERA champion, Anibal Sanchez.
"I've never cared about getting attention," Porcello said. "I'm just happy we're winning and I'm helping the cause."
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John Perrotto has covered professional baseball since 1988 for such outlets as USA Today, The Sports Xchange, Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus and the Beaver County (Pa.) Times. You can find more of his work on Facebook or follow him on Twitter.