Rick Porcello frustrated Tigers fans for years. He had a good, solid debut year in 2009 with 2.5 bWAR, but then followed that up with two seasons where he was barely above replacement level. He improved in the 2012 and 2013 seasons, delivering 1.5 bWAR and 2.4 bWAR, respectively. He still had yet to show himself to be the pitcher that scouts and prospect analysts believed he could be.
Every year was supposed to be the year that Porcello was supposed to break out, yet it never really happened in Detroit. He did have a 4 bWAR season in 2014, and that probably should count as a “breakout,” but it might have been tough to see it that way when he had a 3.91 RA9 and a strikeout rate that was among the worst in the AL. The good WAR value was partially because the Tigers’ defense was so bad.
We can only speculate as to why Dave Dombrowski decided to trade Porcello after his best season. Perhaps he was tired of the inconsistencies, or perhaps he did not believe that Porcello could have another 4-WAR season. Regardless, he decided to trade him to the Red Sox in exchange for some sorely needed outfield help in Yoenis Céspedes. Boston GM Ben Cherington clearly felt very differently than the man who would eventually take his job, so much so that he handed Porcello a four-year, $82.5 million extension before he had even thrown his first pitch for the Sox.
Porcello made that extension look highly questionable in his first season in Boston. He had a 5.39 RA9 and gave up 25 HR. The one glimmer of hope came from him posting a career high 20 percent strikeout rate. Furthermore, his four-seamer appeared to be significantly improved. It was about 1 MPH faster and Porcello was locating it up in the zone more.
Perhaps locating the ball up and out of the zone does not seem like the best idea. But it worked.
Porcello Fourseamer Results
Ironically, Porcello would go on to have his best season ever under Dombrowski. He was still a bit homer-prone, but his control, which had always been quite good, got even better. He posted a remarkable 3.6 percent walk rate. Only Josh Tomlin was better at avoiding free passes. His 3.43 RA9 and 5.1 bWAR were both career bests, and they contributed to him (somewhat controversially) winning the Cy Young Award in a relatively weak field of candidates.
Porcello’s RA9 was nearly two runs better in 2016 than 2015, and it is difficult to conclude why that is. He was more or less the same pitcher both years. The Red Sox’s defense was greatly better in 2016, improving by 46 DRS, though most of that was Mookie Betts. Porcello’s fastball did have a bit more life to it, but that is all that I can really say was different in 2016. The velocity and movement on his pitches were roughly the same. The results on his changeup and curveball were quite interesting, though.
2016 Porcello Offspeed Results
Regression to the mean is frequently misunderstood. Some people believe it to mean that a player who has been very lucky will then be just as unlucky, or vice versa. For example, if a true talent 3.00 RA9 pitcher goes on a run where he has a 2.50 RA9, he is not going to turn into a 3.50 RA9 to balance that out. He will simply turn back into being a 3.00 RA9 pitcher.
I bring this up because clearly Porcello was very lucky with batted ball results on his secondary pitches in 2016, and since Brooks Baseball shows that the pitches had not changed at all, it was reasonable to assume that those BABIPS would regress to his career rates. Because baseball is crazy, Porcello has been just as unlucky with his secondary offerings in 2017 as he was lucky in 2016.
2017 Porcello Offspeed Results
It does not appear to be a command issue either.
Porcello’s overall BABIP is an unsustainably high .367 overall, in part because the Red Sox’s defense is not as good as last year, especially at third base. In fact, his RA9 is almost a run higher than his ERA because of all the unearned runs. It is not all bad defense and and bad BABIP luck, though. Porcello’s hard-hit rate is at almost 43 percent. Only Robbie Ray’s hard-hit rate is higher among qualified starters.
Interestingly enough, Porcello’s 4.3 percent walk rate approximately splits the difference between the walk rates of his last two seasons. It is still an excellent walk rate, and only five starters are giving free passes at a lower rate. Further good news is that his 22 percent strikeout rate is the best of his career, as well as a career-best 10.8 percent whiff rate. Last but not least, Porcello’s 4.40 DRA is 0.8 runs better than his RA9, thanks to his good strikeout and walk rates, as well as his bad BABIP luck.
I believe that Porcello’s 2016 is not coming back, but I also believe that Porcello is better than his current 5.21 RA9 might indicate given some of the bad luck he has had. ZiPS projects a 4.03 RA9 and Steamer projects a 4.30 RA9 for the rest of the season. That seems like a pretty reasonable range to me, and it would be worth 2-3 WAR the rest of the way. If David Price pitches like vintage Price and Chris Sale keeps pitching the way he has been, I would definitely take that if I were a Red Sox fan.
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Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.