Legacy. Tradition. A who’s who of American sport. As the Gatorade Player of the Year program celebrates its 30th anniversary year of honoring the nation’s best high school athletes, fans can count many a household name on the roster of former award-winners. Over the past three decades, prep sports’ most esteemed honor boasts Super Bowl, World Series, NBA, WNBA, MLS Cup, NCAA and Olympic champions among more than 13,000 State Players of the Year and 270 National POYs across 12 sports. Let’s not forget the scores of program alumni who have gone on to capture league-MVP, All-Star and All-American recognition. Today, we’re catching up with Rick Porcello.
Blame it on Julio Lugo?
That was a popular pastime in Boston, even long after the overpaid shortstop was shipped out of town in 2009 (with a 2007 World Series ring on his finger). In Rick Porcello’s case, however, it probably really was Lugo’s fault.
When Lugo signed a bloated four-year, $36 million contract prior to the 2007 season, the Red Sox were forced to send their first-round pick in that June’s amateur draft (20th overall) to the Los Angeles Dodgers as compensation.
That year’s Gatorade National Baseball Player of the Year—and highest ranked prep pitching prospect—was Porcello, who went 10-0 with a 1.20 ERA and 112 strikeouts in 70 innings for state champion West Orange (N.J.) Seton Hall Prep. A 3.94 GPA student in the classroom, he also batted .477 with 11 home runs and 48 RBI as a high school senior.
Initially expected to be chosen as high as No. 2 in the draft, Porcello slipped dramatically, presumably because of agent Scott Boras and expected contract demands. It’s extremely likely that the Red Sox—who had a better-than-most working relationship with Boras—would have snapped up Porcello at No. 20. Heck, the Red Sox did sign Porcello’s grandfather 66 years earlier.
Instead, the Dodgers drafted Chris Withrow, and the Detroit Tigers selected Porcello at No. 27. Turning down a chance to play at the University of North Carolina, where he would have roomed with New York Mets star Matt Harvey, the 2006-07 Gatorade Connecticut Player of the Year at Groton (Conn.) Fitch, Porcello signed an $11.1 million deal with the Tigers.
At age 20, after just one season in Single-A ball, Porcello broke camp in Detroit’s rotation as the youngest player in the majors and ultimately finished third in the 2009 Rookie of the Year voting. That October, he started a one-game playoff against the Minnesota Twins for the American League Central Division title and pitched well enough to win. In his first six seasons, he’s won double-digit games each year, never making fewer than 27 starts.
The 2014 season was clearly his best. Having scrapped his slider for the curve ball he used at Seton Hall Prep, Porcello posted a 15-13 record with a career-low ERA (3.43) and WHIP (1.23), a career-high 204.2 innings pitched and a league-leading three shutouts.
This past week, Detroit traded Porcello to the Red Sox for outfielder Yoenis Cespedes, reliever Alex Wilson and minor leaguer Gabe Speier. In Boston, Porcello will bolster a rotation that couldn’t lure back free agent Jon Lester—the 2001-02 Gatorade Washington Baseball Player of the Year at Tacoma (Wash.) Bellarmine Prep—who instead signed a six-year deal with the Cubs.
The right-hander will join Clay Buchholz, Joe Kelly and new acquisitions Justin Masterson and Wade Miley on a starting staff in which all five pitchers have groundball ratios higher than the league average.
Boston’s stout infield defense—featuring plus defenders Pablo Sandoval and Mike Napoli at the corners, four-time Gold Glove winner Dustin Pedroia at second base, and second-year shortstop Xander Bogaerts as the only question mark—should easily be the best group that has ever played behind Porcello’s two-seam fastball. Given that happy circumstance, Porcello, still just 26 when the 2015 season begins, has the potential to emerge as an ace for Boston.
Albeit several seasons late. Thanks to Julio Lugo.
To see the legacy for yourself, visit the Gatorade Player of the Year winner archive, where you can relive history and see which future stars won their first national recognition as high school athletes. To see the cream of the crop, visit the roster of Gatorade High School Athlete of the Year winners, showcasing Gatorade’s top male and female National Player of the Year honoree, selected annually from each POY class.