DrewSmylyAndy Oliver’s struggles yesterday left Drew Smyly as the “numbers” leader for the fifth spot in the starting rotation. But this has lead to concern amongst Tigers fans that awarding Smyly the spot (after only one year in the minor leagues) would cause his development to be stunted. The theory here is that it would be better to allow him to develop in the minor leagues where he can “work on things” than (potentially) get pounded in the big leagues where he might lose confidence in his less refined offerings.

The easy comparison here is Rick Porcello. He was a highly touted prospect that spent just a single season in the minor leagues, but after three big league seasons, has yet to come close to realizing his top-of-the-rotation potential. But once you look past their identical minor league service time, you’ll find that there’s really very little in common between 2009 Rick Porcello and 2012 Drew Smyly.

First of all, Smyly was a college pitcher, where Porcello made the jump to professional baseball out of high school. So, whereas Porcello was 20 years old when he made his major league debut, Smyly would be 22 (and would turn 23 in June). And Smyly’s two years of action at the University of Arkansas also serve as two years of experience versus post high school hitters. That’s not the same experience one would gain in some of the upper levels of the minor leagues, but it’s probably not all that dissimilar to a Tigers prospect spending a year in Connecticut and a year in West Michigan.

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Secondly, Smyly received a promotion two-thirds of the way through his season and didn’t spend his whole year in Lakeland as Porcello did. Smyly recorded 45 innings with the Erie SeaWolves of the Eastern League – conventionally thought to be a “hitter’s league”. Sure it was ‘only’45 innings, but that’s 45 innings versus hitters that were more advanced than Porcello ever faced before he arrived in Detroit.

But it’s not just the promotion that separate’s Smyly’s lone minor league season from Porcello’s. The numbers also show a significant difference in performance level. Here’s a look at both players minor league numbers for the year prior to making (or potentially making) the big league roster:

Player    Year   
    IP   
    K/9   
    BB/9   
    HR/9   
    ERA   
    BABIP   
    FIP   
Porcello 2008 125 5.2 2.4 0.5 2.66 0.270 3.83
Smyly 2011 126 9.3 2.6 0.1 2.07 0.304 2.28

These numbers aren’t really close, especially when we bear in mind that Porcello had spent the entire year in Advanced-A ball while Smyly was bumped up to AA for (just more than) one-third of his innings. The big indicator here is the strikeout rate. The biggest complaint about Porcello’s development is that he wasn’t given enough time in the minor leagues to learn how to strike professional hitters out. This doesn’t appear to be an issue for Smyly – he could lose a couple K’s per nine off that rate and still see good success in the majors.

This isn’t all to say that Smyly will definitely succeed in the big leagues if he’s given the chance, or even that he’ll have more early success than Porcello will. But I think it does show that the players were surrounded by completely different circumstances. Just because things “haven’t worked out” as we all hoped they would for Porcello, it doesn’t mean that Smyly will meet the same fate.

Matt Snyder is the editor of The Tigers Den. He can be reached on Twitter @snyder_matthew.