Tank Talks Sox: Rick Porcello has landed

Last year's A.L. Cy Young winner is still good, but he's coming back to Earth

David Tanklefsky
May 19, 2017 - 12:59 pm

With Chris Sale pitching at Pedro Martinez-level dominance and Eduardo Rodriguez looking like a sharp number two starter, Rick Porcello has provided quality innings for the Red Sox as a depth starter. Yet even the most optimistic Boston fan probably thought another Cy Young-level year was unlikely and...yeah, it is. Porcello is still a solid major league starter, but he's coming back down to earth.

Last year he rode durability, superb command and a 3.15 ERA to the Cy Young crown. He posted career bests in ERA, WHIP and walks per nine innings and led the league in strikeout to walk rate. 

But he also got a lot of help. The Red Sox gave him the most run support of any pitcher in the big leagues, which led to his 22 wins and likely pushed him over the top in the Cy Young voting, silly as that may be. His home run to flyball rate was one of the lowest in the game, which was hugely important to his success given that he allowed a lot of fly balls.

It was a very good year for sure, but Porcello was far from a unanimous Cy Young choice. Justin Verlander got more first place votes and among the top three vote getters (Porcello, Verlander and Corey Kluber), Porcello ranked third in WAR, hits, earned runs and strikeouts.

So far this year, he has been just a touch better than league average. His ERA is up by more than a run from last year. He's given up the most hits in the league and his home run to flyball ratio is up more than five percent from last year to 14.5%. Add to those numbers a career-low groundball to flyball ratio and you've got a recipe for a lot of long balls. 

For much of his early career in Detroit, Porcello was considered a groundball pitcher. He had low fastball velocity and threw a lot of sinkers which induced plenty of ground outs. Since coming to Boston, he's thrown way fewer sinkers and has attacked the upper part of the zone more often. Each year in Boston, his K rate has gone up and his groundball/flyball rate has gone down. But this year, hitters have still been making hard contact on him when they put bat to ball.

Porcello has the second highest hard hit percentage in baseball (min. 40 innings), behind only Arizona's Robbie Ray. If it stays where it is (44.3%), it would be an astounding 11 and a half points higher than his previous career high. Baseball Savant from Statcast backs up the hard-hit data: only four pitchers this year have allowed more balls to leave the bat at more than 95 miles per hour than Porcello.

While last year opponents hit just .269 on balls in play against Porcello, this year that number has jumped to .341. Last year Porcello benefitted from a Boston defense that was one of the best in the league. This year, they've been the opposite, with the third lowest fielding percentage in baseball. As Chris Mason of the Eagle Tribune points out, Sox fielders have already made 12 errors on days Porcello starts.

Righthanded hitters are having much more success against him this season:

2016 vs. RHB: .235/.276/.396
2017 vs. RHB: .314/.341/.504

It's been feast or famine for Porcello against righties. He's striking out nearly a quarter of them all, but they're hitting .388 against him when they put the ball in play. 

Hitters also seem to have figured out his off-speed pitches. Last year, opponents hit .213 against his curveball. This year they're up to .314. Last year they hit a putrid .197 against his changeup. This year, a whopping .400.

He is what he is: a good pitcher regressing to the mean after a career year. Porcello has landed.

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