Baseball is a strange sport. Sometimes a pitcher throws a good pitch but the batter hits it. When that happens we blame the pitcher. Other times a pitcher throws a bad pitch but the batter misses it, and then we praise the pitcher. As it turns out, for a pitcher, pitching good isn’t the same as being good. I was thinking about all this in relation to Rick Porcello.
You could say Porcello is the keystone of the Red Sox rotation. If he doesn’t throw a pitch in 2017, the rotation will very likely still be good because Chris Sale and David Price are both very good, but without Porcello, things get a lot more iffy. Porcello is the difference between a dominating group and a top-heavy one. Basically, without him the bridge doesn’t hold up.
So how good will Porcello be in 2017? It’s all a guess at this point of course, this being January and all, but we can make some guesses. Here at BP we call those guesses “projections.” I don’t think I’m giving any secrets away when I say our projections are based on the past. They look at what similar players have done previously and what the player has done previously, and then add some aging and a few other assorted spices and you’ve got a projection! That brings me to the problem with Porcello.
Look at these two pitchers.
Pitcher A: 7.8 K/9; 1.99 BB/9; 45.7 GB%; 1.31 HR/9
Pitcher B: 7.63 K/9; 1.29 BB/9; 43.1 GB%; 0.93 HR/9
The first one, Pitcher A, has a very slight edge in strikeouts and ground balls, but he walks a few more hitters (though still not a lot) and gives up more homers compared to Pitcher B. On the whole though, they’re not that dissimilar. Of course those aren’t all their statistics. [30 for 30 voice] What if I told you that Pitcher A’s DRA was 4.14 while Pitcher B’s DRA was 3.45? Then you’d probably give the edge to Pitcher B, and you’d be right, but it’s not a huge edge, right? Even then they’re really not that different. DRA or not, those basic numbers are still pretty close.
So if you haven’t guessed yet, “Pitcher A” is Rick Porcello while “Pitcher B” is Rick Porcello. A is Porcello in 2015 and B is Porcello last season, in 2016. Put a slightly different way: A was a pitcher who was so bad he was sent down to the minors and, along with Pablo Sandoval’s incredibly visible disappearing act, was a big part of getting the guy who traded for him and signed him to an extension fired. B won the Cy Young Award and is thought of as one of the best pitchers on one of the best pitching staffs in baseball.
And that’s kind of the point here. The Porcello who won the Cy Young wasn’t really all that different than the one who was almost run out of town. For Red Sox fans, that should be somewhat concerning. If Porcello can pitch and get raked one year and then next year pitch very similarly and get amazing results, what does that say about Porcello? Are his success and failure just outliers on a graph full of possibilities?
Sometimes pitchers take big steps forward. We saw that with Corey Kluber and Dallas Keuchel in 2014, two guys who were mediocre starters turned into some of the best starters in baseball. Usually there’s a reason for the shift, something that happened physically (or didn’t happen), a new pitch, a new grip, something. For Keuchel it was ditching his curve for a devastating slider. For Kluber it was some newfound velocity, and maybe some added control of the sinker. There are other examples but the point is that nothing like this happened to Rick Porcello. His four seam fastball was the same velocity in 2016 as 2015. He didn’t throw it or any of his other pitches for strikes more often, get more ground balls, induce more swings outside of the zone, throw a new pitch, alter an old one, or really any of the thousands of other things a pitcher who goes from garbage to Cy Young in one season usually does.
How do we know we’re getting the 2016 Porcello again? Couldn’t we get the 2015 version even if he pitches similarly?
And yet here we are, talking about Rick Porcello as a sure thing ace in Boston’s rotation. The word I used was “keystone.” I used that word because I like it, but also because Porcello’s performance is more volatile than either of his Big Three rotation mates, Sale and Price. Not that keystones are volatile, just that they are utterly necessary. But how do we know we’re getting the 2016 Porcello again? Couldn’t we get the 2015 version even if he pitches similarly? How do you get a handle on a guy who was a deserved and actual member of the 2015 Pawtucket Red Sox as well as deserved and actual owner of the 2016 AL Cy Young Award?
The narrative is that Porcello located his fastball up higher in the zone than he had in previous seasons and that, plus some improved location, was a big part of his increased success. Both Porcello’s fly ball percentage and his infield fly ball percentage jumped, two facts that are consistent with this story. However his home runs fell. I guess that follows as well if you agree with the “improved location” part, but something about that doesn’t sound quite right.
Those projections I talked about earlier are likely to split the difference (I’m talking generally). That’s the safe thing to do, right? Porcello is coming off a huge season and he’s relatively young, but he has an established track record of performance before last season to consider as well.
Rick Porcello’s 2016 may just be one of those great confluences of skill, when things come together, but when even bad pitches aren’t usually hit hard. It’s funny because that’s pretty much the exact opposite of his 2015 when even his good pitches were blasted all over the yard. As projections tell us though, the truth is often in the middle, no matter whether the results say “send him to the minors” or “best pitcher in the league.”
Maybe this is on me and I just can’t see it. Just because there was no new pitch, no velo spike, doesn’t mean Porcello wasn’t doing something differently or just better. The question, though, is how repeatable it all is. If there was a big shiny star that we could point to as a reason behind his Cy Young success, that would have the added bonus of being conspicuous were it absent. “Oh, the shiny star is gone, guess Porcello is screwed,” we could say. But if the big secret to Porcello’s success is “somewhat improved location,” well, that’s a bit harder to see. For that, we really have to wait for the results of the pitch, and sometimes even then we won’t know because sometimes hitters hit good pitchers.