The Red Sox have a clear objective heading into this summer’s trade season: improve their starting pitching. Sure, grabbing a left-handed outfielder to pair with Chris Young would be fantastic. And yes, solidifying the bullpen would go a long way towards locking a playoff spot down the stretch.
Those aren’t priorities, though. This team needs another starter in the same way the human body needs oxygen and food; without this addition, the Red Sox are in trouble. The consensus right now is that the top three in Boston’s rotation are fine, and they could find a fourth option internally between any of the other mediocre options. They just need that fifth starter, preferably one who could slot in the middle of that top three.
An important member of that top three is Rick Porcello, who is only a calendar year removed from having a legitimate argument for being the worst full-time starter in all of baseball. To say he’s turned things around in 2016 — and really, starting last August — would be a tremendous understatement.
Now, he is looking like he should be a really solid mid-rotation pitcher and can lock down a spot in a playoff rotation. Nonetheless, when you sit down and look at his numbers, has he really been that different from his 2015 self?
Honestly, the answer depends on what kind of numbers you’re looking at. If you prefer the more descriptive pitching stats, the answer is definitively yes. This year, Porcello has a 3.76 ERA versus a 4.92 mark in 2015. Similarly, he has a 3.58 DRA vs. a 4.40 a year ago. Those are significant differences, and they back up what we have watched this year.
Porcello’s strikeout, walk, home run and groundball rates are all more or less the same as they were last year.
On the other hand, the more predictive peripheral numbers tell a different story. His 4.04 FIP this year is only very slightly better than the 4.10 mark he put up last year. There’s a bigger split between his 92 cFIP this year compared to the 98 he put up in 2015, but they are still relatively close in the grand scheme of things. Additionally, his strikeout, walk, home run and groundball rates are all more or less the same as they were last year. In the end, the real separating factor in this supposed Tale of Two Seasons has been the number of hits he’s allowed.
As boring as it sounds, there has been luck involved in both seasons’ performances. Porcello allowed a BABIP of .332 last season, the second-highest mark of his career and well above the league-average. Conversely, he’s allowed a .269 mark this year, the lowest mark of his career and well below the league-average. The easy conclusion to make is that his true talent is in the middle of 2015 and 2016, and that is likely true.
However, there are also some real changes that have resulted in this discrepancy beyond the fickle mood of the proverbial Baseball Gods.
Specifically, Porcello’s made a highly publicized change in his repertoire from his low point last year. In 2015, he famously tried to lean more heavily on his four-seam fastball, leaving his sinker more or less in the dust. It did lead to an uptick in strikeouts, but it also led to more grooved pitches than ever and, subsequently, more hard contact.
Fast forward to this year (and, again, the final stretch of last year), and he’s leaning back on his sinker. The biggest effect I can find from this change is that Porcello is back to inducing contact on pitches out of the zone. In 2015, his O_Contact_Rt reached an all-time low, which we normally think of as a good thing. It was a good thing, of course, as it helped lead to some of those strikeouts. However, it also kept batters alive long enough to find better pitches to hit. This year, the at-bats are ending earlier, often with weaker contact. So, while the discrepancy in BABIP is partially due to luck, there are also tangible differences that have led to the increased effectiveness.
On the other hand, it’s not hard to imagine some other portions of his game taking a step back as the season goes on. Specifically, one shouldn’t expect Porcello to continue striking batters out at this kind of rate. Right now, he’s striking out a career-high eight batters per nine innings despite swinging-strike and zone rates that are essentially right at this career average. Now, strikeouts are up around the league, which may help partially explain this, but a decline is fair to expect. Even if the number falls down to seven per nine, we’re talking about a less effective pitcher.
Then, there’s the elephant in the room: The home runs. Beyond everything else, this was what undid Porcello in 2015. The problem hasn’t gone away this year, despite the better overall results. Sure, he’s allowing fewer base runners, so the dingers have a smaller effect, but allowing 1.3 home runs per nine innings is never a good thing. Despite the increased sinker usage and the overall weaker contact, he’s still below the 50 percent groundball rate threshold and is still leaving too many balls up in the zone.
After how he looked last year, it’s hard not to feel more positive about Rick Porcello, though you’ll save yourself some heartache by keeping expectations in check. According to some of the numbers, he hasn’t really changed at all from his 2015 self. I wouldn’t go nearly that far — there is real evidence supporting his declining BABIP — but I don’t think the difference is as large as his ERA would suggest.
In reality, his true talent is likely in the middle of the two seasons, settling in as something around a 4.00 ERA pitcher. While the Red Sox go look for their newest starting pitcher on the trade market, they can still plan on Porcello being part of their hopeful playoff rotation. It’s just that he’d be a better fit as the fourth guy in the team’s rotation rather than the second or third.
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