Rick Porcello is an undervalued asset, and the Red Sox are geniuses for signing him to an extension. This is Moneyball, you think to yourself, as you sing Ben Cherington’s praises on Twitter. Just keep looking at his FIP, you reassure yourself. We needed more starting depth, your brain screams. This is a great deal.
You have to think this way, because the alternative is scary. The alternative suggests that you don’t like this deal. In fact, if you don’t like it, you must hate it! The Red Sox must be morons for paying Porcello real, American currency.
Rick Porcello has signed a four-year, $82.5 million extension and you’re a baseball fan on the internet in 2015 and you must pick a side. So you pick the side that says your team won, because there can be no middle ground.
Here’s the thing, though: this deal is just ok. This deal is all about that middle ground. It’s Porcello sacrificing potential maximum earnings to ensure that his family is set for generations. It’s the Red Sox showing once again they’d rather gamble with money than with years. It’s about the middle of the rotation, and Ben Cherington looking at Clay Buchholz, saying “I need to balance this out. I need the exact opposite of this.”
There are selling points and there are potential problems, just as with any other contract. No one got a steal here, and no one was hoodwinked, either. This deal is about moderate risk and moderate reward, and that’s ok. It doesn’t have to be sexy.
But everyone’s trying to make it sexy. Here’s what we’ve been told about Porcello/this deal since he signed:
The Sox just signed Porcello through his prime
Ok, yes, here is Selling Point No. 1. Given how little we can definitively say about pitcher aging curves, I don’t think we can say this is certainly true, but we can say it’s more likely to be true than false. Porcello is just 26 and the Sox can let him walk before he turns 31, which is great. All things being equal, you’ll always take the younger pitcher.
On an episode of Effectively Wild last week, Sam Miller, Ben Lindbergh, Jeff Zimmerman and Doug Thorburn held a draft of pitchers least likely to need Tommy John surgery in the near future, and Porcello was a very high pick. What does that really mean? Absolutely nothing! But it’s encouraging, and it’s easy to see the logic behind the youth + proven durability + workhorse frame = safe bet equation.
Dave Cameron of FanGraphs also took a look at pitchers with similar career tracks as Porcello, and the news there is fairly positive as well. Yes, the name Ismael Valdez pops up, but so too do the names CC Sabathia, Javier Vazquez and Mark Buehrle. The Red Sox aren’t being unreasonable in assuming Porcello can stay on the mound and pitch like he’s been pitching for several years.
Great, so we’re one-for-one! But what does in-his-prime, peak-level Porcello look like? Here enlies the great debate:
When we factor in FIP, Porcello is a No. 2 starter
Well, maybe, but this has the potential to be Problem No. 1.
First, the good news: Porcello performed as a No. 2 starter last season. His 3.67 FIP was good for 46th in the league among qualified starters, and his 1.84 PWARP was good for 43rd. Since 2010, his first full MLB season, Porcello is 55th in FIP (3.88) among pitchers who’ve thrown at least 500 innings. Over the past three years, he moves up to No. 47 with a 3.70 FIP which, coincidentally, is one spot ahead of Wade Miley (3.71).
This would seem to indicate that yes, Porcello is capable of being an ok No. 2 or good No. 3 starter in a world where FIP is fair and the only factor that really matters and Brian Butterfield can be to defensive shifts what Varys the Eunuch is to feudal dynastic revenge planning.
But let’s look at what’s actually happened over the past few years. Last season, Porcello’s FIP came with a 3.43 ERA. That’s good! Yet Porcello’s FIP was better in 2013 (3.53), when his ERA sat a 4.32. The angel on your shoulder says “see, he’s had the skills to be pretty good for two years, now.” The devil on mine makes me curious as to how he achieved such a dramatic swing.
The obvious answer: the Tigers infield defense, which once featured the range of Seth Rogan, improved between 2013 and 2014. Ian Kinsler came to play, Miguel Cabrera moved from third to first and Prince Fielder got to prove the irony of his last name elsewhere. Porcello’s BABIP went from .355 in 2012 to .315 to 2013 to .298 last year. Great.
Except Porcello’s K% and GB% fell in 2014, while his LD% and FB% increased. He walked fewer people, which is important, but walks weren’t an issue to begin with. Seeing a contact-oriented pitcher moving from Comerica to Fenway start giving up more line drives and fly balls is discomforting, and it’s enough to negate some of the “yay, his BABIP was better” feeling you may feel at first glance.
And regardless of the caliber of defense behind him, Porcello struggles against left-handed hitters. He’s given up a .296/.349/.451 line against southpaws in his career, and while that improved to around league average for a RHP last year (.265/.315/.417), I still wouldn’t endeavor to call it a strength.
Want to argue his numbers against lefties will get better with better infield defense (48.2 GB% vs LHP last season)? I’ll bite. But I’d also ask you to notice that Fenway’s a better place to hit than Comerica, especially when it comes to left-handed doubles.
Still, given that Fenway’s actually tougher on lefty homers than Comerica is, it’s not crazy to think that Porcello will gain more from an improved infield defense than he’ll lose by switching parks. So let’s talk about that defense, which is really an integral component to the whole Porcello debate:
Porcello will be helped by Boston’s good infield defense
This should be true for 2015, yep. Napoli is a better defender than Cabrera. Pedroia is a better defender than Kinsler. Pablo Sandoval is a better defender than Nick Castellanos. Xander Bogaerts is hey look what’s that over there? Still, it’s tough to argue with this.
But here comes Problem No. 2. Porcello isn’t only under control for 2015 anymore, and projecting Boston’s infield out one or two years into the future becomes a tricky proposition.
Because when Porcello doesn’t have a good defense behind him, he’s really quite pedestrian, as his ~4.50 ERA from 2011-2013 suggests.
We don’t really have to worry about Pedroia: if his limbs are attached to his body, he’s going to be an asset in the field. However, there’s less certainty as we shift around the diamond.
Napoli is a free agent after this season, and given the presence of Allen Craig and Daniel Nava, Nap is no lock to be invited back to Fenway. That’s a bummer, because Craig and Nava are both inferior defenders. Sandoval is a good defender now, but it wouldn’t shock anyone if his weight and age mean a shift off the position comes in, say, 2018. Bogaerts is fighting for his life to be average at short, and he’s no lock to stay there through the length of Porcello’s contract either.
Projecting out defense is largely futile, and there’s no conclusive evidence that any of the above will happen. But in committing this much to Porcello (and Miley, to a lesser extent), the Red Sox really have to have an above average defensive infield for the majority of the next five years. Because when Porcello doesn’t have a good defense behind him, he’s really quite pedestrian, as his ~4.50 ERA from 2011-2013 suggests.
Still, the Sox seem to be clear believers in defensive value and it’s not crazy to think infield defense is something they would’ve emphasized regardless of Porcello. So if everything goes right and Porcello stays healthy and the defense is good and he produces, the argument goes, this is a reasonable contract. That ties in to the next point:
$20 million aav isn’t “ace money” anymore
The two legit aces on the market this past offseason, Max Scherzer and Jon Lester, signed contracts for AAVs of $30 million and $25.8 million, respectively. They’re both much better than Porcello, and they’re both getting paid substantially more over much longer periods of time.
Let’s look at the next tier of pitchers instead. James Shields is getting just a touch under $20 million AAV, even though he’s better than Porcello. Homer Bailey got $17.5 million a year when he signed his extension about a year ago. He’s pretty similar to Porcello. In late 2013, the Giants gave Tim Lincecum a two-year, $35 million pact in the hopes that he could be a No. 2 starter. He’s probably worse than Porcello.
Now on to the the caveats. Shields signed on for his age-33 through age-36 seasons, whereas the Sox acquired Porcello’s age-27 through age-30 campaigns. Bailey signed for six years, not four. Lincecum’s shorter contract is offset by the fact that he was pretty bad the year before he signed it. So $20 million for a No. 2 isn’t a bargain, but it’s no longer a crazy figure for a guy like Porcello.
However – and I think this point has been glossed over too quickly by those looking to praise this deal — Porcello has to be as good as a No. 2/3 starter for this contract to make sense, because if he’s not, all he’s good for is bulk innings. Even in today’s market, you don’t have to give a guy $20 million for bulk innings. Ervin Santana just got south of $14 million a year for that. Porcello needs to be better than that baseline. He can be, as 2014 showed us, but, as the rest of his career suggests, he’s not a lock to be. So sure, $20 million isn’t ace money anymore, but it’s not the going rate for back-end starters, either.
We can’t call this a problem or a selling point yet, because we still don’t really know what Porcello will be. This deal gave Porcello a slightly higher AAV than he deserves for fewer years than he was likely to get on the open market. This is reasonable, but not a steal. This is fair, but not a bargain. This is a push.
Now, what does the $82.5 million really cost the Red Sox, other than $82.5 million?
This doesn’t stop the Red Sox from doing much
This is true in a way, and I think it’s Selling Point No. 2. Marc Normandin has a great breakdown of what this means for Boston’s payroll in 2016, and he calculates that even after Porcello’s extension, if you assume Ortiz and Buchholz will have their options picked up for next year, the payroll is sitting at right around $160-165 million. That leaves enough money to re-sign Napoli and extend Bogaerts and Mookie Betts to contract extensions, as Normandin points out.
What this does likely stop the Red Sox from doing is playing in a pitching market that figures to offer plenty of options.
Jordan Zimmermann, Johnny Cueto and David Price are all slated to hit the market after this season, as are options like Jeff Samardzija, Mat Latos, Doug Fister and Scott Kazmir. Porcello might’ve slotted in with that second group with a strong 2015, sure, but the Sox are placing a pretty heavy bet on the fact that he will indeed have that season.
This is Cherington quadrupling down on not giving out five-plus year contracts to pitchers. He’ll take risks, just not *that* risk.
This deal also makes it less likely for the Red Sox to absorb the salary of a good pitcher in a trade, but let’s not get into that debate today.
And maybe that’s the point. Aside from the Jon Lester negotiation — which we have every reason to believe was an outlier — maybe this is Cherington just quadrupling down on not giving out five-plus year contracts to pitchers. He’ll take risks, just not that risk. That’s not a bad quality for a GM to have, and a good portion of the risk associated with this deal is mitigated by the fact that it’s just a four-year pact.
Still, just because a deal for a pitcher isn’t long doesn’t mean it is great, and that’s where the characterization of this deal as a “steal” for the Red Sox stops making sense. If Porcello stays healthy and is the pitcher FIP says he is and the Sox employ an infield that capitalizes on his abilities, yes, he can earn that $82.5 million.
But while each one of these events seems likely enough to happen when isolated, how good are the odds that they all happen? Plus, as R.J. Anderson pointed out at the mothership, it’s downright unlikely that Porcello outperforms this deal. He’s not a breakout candidate, and while not every contract needs to provide surplus value, this is certainly an example of the Sox buying high on a player.
To an extent, that’s ok. The Red Sox didn’t have a lot they could count on in terms of pitching talent six months ago, but now they have Miley and Porcello locked down. Buchholz and Joe Kelly have the potential to be Red Sox starters for a bit, too, and add in talents like Henry Owens, Eduardo Rodriguez and Brian Johnson, and you start to see a long-term plan for Boston’s starting five.
Cherington just paid sticker price for that stability, though. That’s not the end of the world, and this is a deal that makes sense within the confines of the organization. But that’s all this is: a deal that makes sense. It’s not a steal or a huge overpay. If Porcello is good, the deal is ok. If Porcello is ok, the deal isn’t great. They’re betting that Porcello won’t be bad, and based on his career, that’s a fairly safe bet.
This deal is about moderate risk and moderate reward, and that’s ok, even if it’s not sexy. Just please stop trying to make it sexy.
Photo by Roger DeWitt.