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Rick Porcello and staying optimistic

Hear me out: there are reasons to be optimistic

Jim Rogash/Getty Images

As a Boston Red Sox fan, this was just a weird season. There were multiple occasions where they were 15 games under .500. Then, somehow, they stormed back to have a 78-80 record with four games to play. They would go on, of course, to lose those last four contests. Oh yeah, then there’s the whole new front office thing. On top of the whole Don Orsillo thing. ‘Twas a long season.

There are some reasons to be optimistic and/or pessimistic—take your pick.

On the player side, there are reasons to be optimistic about the future. Mookie Betts looks like the future of the Red Sox. As does Xander Bogaerts, who is starting to come into his own. David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia had good overall seasons. Jackie Bradley Jr. looked very impressive in his latest Major League stint. Clay Buchholz was pitching very well before he landed on the Disabled List. Wade Miley was..well, let’s just say he was ehh. Joe Kelly had a nice eight game stretch to end his season. Not to mention, for four starts between September and October Rich Hill looked like the ace Boston had been searching for all their lives.

Much like the reasons for optimism, this seasons iteration of the Red Sox also provides many a reason for pessimism. The bullpen was the worst in all of baseball, and that isn’t a joke. If you’re looking for comedy, however, there was Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez’ poor seasons in the first year of their respective contracts. Lest we forget Ramirez’ general inability to function in leftfield, one of the ideas that backfired on Ben Cherington. I know that ‘general inability to function’ sounds harsh, but when you own a -31.9 UZR/150 and -19 DRS I think it is well deserved.

Between Red Sox optimism and Red Sox pessimism lies the one, the only, Rick Porcello (cue John Cena walk out music). For him, there is much to be explained.

While the reasoning was to prevent Porcello from reaching free agency in the upcoming offseason, the four-year/$82.5 million April extension  of Rick Porcello (discussed here by my colleague Steven Martano) was a touch out of leftfield. I mean literally. Before the Red Sox could even attempt to extend him it would literally cost them their newly acquired leftfielder, Yoenis Cespedes.

As Craig Edwards of FanGraphs explained, however, there was reasonable logic behind it. The market for young, decent starting pitchers like Porcello is typically expensive. Obviously, most teams would rather take their chances when spending the big bucks on younger guys that would be closer to their prime. So the signing began with optimism, but there was baseball to be played. Would Porcello improve and make the Red Sox look like they got a steal?

What a first impression
IP K% BB% GB% ERA FIP xFIP
This season through 7/31 114.2 18.3% 5.4% 43.2% 5.81 4.71 4.11

In short, that would be a no. Pessimism began to creep up with Porcello. ‘Oh God, the Sox signed this guy for all that money and this is what they’re going to get?’, ‘They should’ve let him hit free agency, they didn’t need to lock him down right then and there.’ Porcello and disappointment became synonymous, as he was one of the moving parts to a Red Sox team with high expectations that just didn’t work. It was already decided that, four months into the season, the extension he hadn’t even received a dime from was one of the worst Red Sox decisions in a while.

It isn’t as if Porcello wasn’t trying to live up to it. In fact, he was trying too hard to live up to the hype. On the first day of July, Christopher Smith of MassLive.com spoke with Porcello about his season to that point. Smith described how Porcello often "puts a great deal of pressure on himself to perform well", and that he "wants to pitch well for Red Sox fans. He wants to show fans what he’s capable of doing." This led to Smith’s conclusion being that maybe the inability to do that could be the "result of placing too much pressure on himself."

So Porcello struggled something awful in his season through July, but on August 2 he found himself on the 15-day DL due to soreness and inflammation in his triceps. In the time between that day and his next start on August 27th, the man that signed Porcello to that big extension would step down after Boston asked him to defer to newly-minted President of Baseball Operations, former Tigers' GM, Dave Dombrowski.

Porcello came back from the DL pitching much better. In fact, from August 27th to the end of the year, the former first round pick owned a 3.14 ERA, 2.96 FIP, and 2.96 xFIP. His strike out rate rose to 24.3 percent, his walk rate dropped a little to 4.7 percent, and his groundball jumped up to 51.2 percent. While that stretch was a much smaller sample size—only 57.1 IP—than before he hit the DL, it represents a version of Porcello that achieved some success this season.

A good reason for this success was rooted in his ability to return to the pitches that have given him success in the past, especially his change-up (which is really a palm-ball):

Porcello's Pitch Usage
Sinker Fourseam Change-up Curveball Slider
2013-14 35.0% 25.3% 14.5% 16.1% 9.0%
Before DL 28.1% 37.1% 7.9% 15.5% 11.5%
After DL 33.3% 32.5% 15.4% 10.6% 8.1%

It is apparent that Porcello returned to his sinker, but the nearly doubled change-up usage worked well. Before his trip to the DL, the change-up Porcello deployed nearly 8 percent of the time was hit hard. Opponents hit .383 on it while slugging .851 (that would be a .468 ISO), although it did own a decent  20.25 whiff/swing.

Upon his return from the DL, Porcello nearly doubled his change-up usage— to how often he used it previously . This would work well for Porcello, as a .209 BAA, .349 SLG, .140 ISO, and 27.16 whiff/swing would imply. So how has his change, changed? Well Porcello’s better, increasingly used change has gained about one inch of vertical movement and decreased about one inch of horizontal movement from before.

A simpler look at his change-up would be to use the PITCHf/x pitch type linear weights offered by FanGraphs. The first change-up he used this season had a -6.7 wCH, while the second change-up owned a 1.8 wCH—clearly an impressive, positive change in value.

When he first came up to the Majors, grounders were a big part of Porcello’s game. However, over the last couple years Porcello has steadily induced fewer grounders and more fly balls. This is, of course, bad for a pitcher who unfortunately owns a very high career HR/FB rate. When Porcello returned from the DL and posted an eight percent higher ground ball rate than he had begun the season , it was an obvious step (backwards step?) in the right direction. This increase in ground balls is thanks, in large part, to pitching lower in the zone.

Having identified some of Porcello's adjustments, I'd be remiss to not mention the largest reason for Porcello’s poor overall season which is something he largely can’t control. In short, the luck dragons hath swallowed up Rick Porcello whole. That is not an understatement, either.

Over his career, Porcello continues to sustain a BABIP, LOB%, and HR/FB that are highly unfavorable. To make things worse, those totals this season make his 'unlucky' career look good. In 2015 Porcello has not only been unlucky in the eyes of his career, he has been one of the only pitchers fortunate enough to rank highly in all three categories.

Dragon down my luck
BABIP LOB% HR/FB%
Porcello in 2015 .332 67.5% 14.5%
MLB rank 84 84 79
Porcello career average .313 69.6% 11.8%

*Rank based on the 89 pitchers with 150+ innings pitched in 2015

So what can be made of Rick Porcello, is there hope?

Yes, there is plenty of reason for an optimistic view on the 26-year old. In the latter half of 2015, he even began to pitch like the Porcello of old. He used his change-up more often, which resulted in greater success. He started pitching lower in the strike zone, to which he was rewarded with more ground balls.

Overall in 2015, Porcello was also a victim of poor luck. His poor BABIP, LOB%, and HR/FB totals likely won’t repeat in the future as totals that poor are likely unsustainable—boding well for the veteran. While that turnaround doesn’t necessarily have to happen in the near future, it likely will at some point.

That doesn’t mean Porcello will come out and post a 6-8 fWAR next season. What it does mean is that we should have a good shot at seeing a resurgent Rick Porcello in 2016.

. . .

Shawn Brody is a contributor for Beyond the Box Score as well as a sophomore pitcher at Howard Payne University majoring in Business Management. He has the current misfortune of being a Red Sox fan. If you would like to get a hold of him, please feel free to email him at Shawnbrody9@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @ShawnBrody.