After coming to Boston in the Yoenis Cespedes trade and immediately inking a four-year, $82.5 million extension through the 2019 season, expectations were high for Morristown, New Jersey native Rick Porcello entering 2015. Things went downhill, fast, as Porcello pitched quite poorly to open the season, sitting on a 6.48 ERA through his first four starts in Boston. The rest of the season didn’t go much better and Porcello finished the campaign with a 4.92 ERA, fourth worst in all of baseball among qualified starters.
So far, 2016 has seen quite different results for the six-foot-five, 205 pound righty, as he’s picked up wins in all four of his starts thus far. He’s turned in a quality start each of the last three times out. Currently, Porcello sits on quite an impressive stat line: 25.2 innings pitched, 19 hits, 10 runs (all earned), five home runs, five walks, two hit batters, and thirty strikeouts. The only real concern there is the home runs — five in 25.2 innings gives him a 1.8 HR/9 this season, almost double the MLB average from a year ago.
However, Porcello was mainly victimized in his first two starts, which both came against the powerful Toronto Blue Jays. In the first game, Jose Bautista took Porcello deep twice, accounting for all four Toronto runs. Six days later, Edwin Encarnacion deposited a pair of pitches into the stands, once again taking credit for all three runs (and the only two hits) the Jays would notch off of Porcello.
Due to the early concentration of longballs against the Blue Jays, Porcello owns a 21.7 percent HR/FB rate this year, nearly double the major-league average from last season (11.8 percent) and about 50 percent higher than his own number from 2015 (14.5 percent). Hopefully as Porcello pitches more innings, this number will come down, and he can keep more fly balls in the park moving forward.
The only other concerning number that jumps out at this time is Porcello’s 35.9 percent fly ball rate, which would stand as his career high were it to remain for the rest of the season. While this does seem concerning, relative to last season, Porcello has traded this +3.4 percent change in fly ball rate for a +4.3 percent change in ground ball rate and a whopping -7.7 percent change in line drive rate. The metrics like these results, as FanGraphs’ SIERA has Porcello at a 2.70 mark so far this season.
In addition to the improvement in batted-ball results (if you assume the HR/FB rate won’t hold up, which it won’t), Porcello’s also seriously ramped up his strikeout ability in this young season. Before 2014, Porcello’s career strikeouts per nine innings sat at a very modest 5.5, nothing special but serviceable for a guy who walked barely over two batters per nine and induced ground balls at a 52.1 percent rate.
Last season, despite the poor overall numbers, Porcello upped his strikeout rate to 7.8 per nine, while keeping his walks per nine down at 2.0, slightly below his career average. This season, however, Porcello has taken his game to another level and currently sits on an excellent 10.5 K/9 through four starts as well as just a 1.8 BB/9. While his starts have come against some strikeout-prone (Toronto, twice) and simply weak (Atlanta, Tampa Bay) lineups, he already has half as many seven-plus strikeout outings as he did last season (three vs. six). While it may seem a little “flukey” that Porcello has had such good strikeout numbers so far, consider this: he’s struck out 9.71 batters per nine over his last eleven starts (76.0 IP) dating back to September 1 of last year, and he’s struck out seven or more batters in eight of those eleven games.
Take a look at a graphic display of Porcello’s strikeout totals over the last two seasons. The peak of the chart represents his 13-strikeout outing against the Yankees on September 1, 2015. Since that day, his strikeout numbers have been much higher. The seven-strikeout threshold is marked to show how Porcello’s been around or above that mark much more often than compared to early last season.
When looking just at Porcello’s results so far this season, it’s quite easy to get optimistic and feel good about him “turning a corner” and improving his level of play. However, it’s quite worth the time to take a look at exactly how Porcello is achieving such impressive results so far this year. When doing this type of analysis on a pitcher, a good starting place is comparing his raw pitch data from year to year and seeing if there are any outlying differences. Take a look at the velocity and movement charts from 2015 and 2016 side-by-side below.
One thing to consider before evaluating these numbers is that Porcello’s “slider” and “cutter” are definitely the same pitch, but for some reason get classified differently by Brooks Baseball. For what it’s worth, Baseball Savant classifies them all as sliders. Due to the relative scarcity of “sliders” as classified by Brooks, it’s likely that those pitches are just cutters that moved a bit differently from a typical cutter. There’s any number of factors that could lead to this: grip, release, arm speed, etc. But, the point remains, you should consider these pitches as one group.
So, looking first at the velocity numbers, one thing jumps out — Porcello’s velocity is down across the board. While this is slightly concerning, it’s not unusual to a pitcher to build velocity as the season goes on and his arm builds strength and endurance to hold velocity later into games. Additionally, Porcello isn’t a guy who relies on overpowering velocity in the first place, so a couple ticks isn’t necessarily taking away from his abilities and pitching style. What Porcello’s lacked in velocity, he’s made up for in increasing movement.
Last season, Porcello’s biggest weakness was his four-seam fastball. He threw it far more often than he had in the past, and it was getting left up in the zone and crushed far too often. Toward the end of last year and into this year, Porcello has cut down on his four-seam usage, and when he does throw them now they’re looking a bit better.
He may have lost about an inch of run on the four-seamer, but he’s made up for it by picking up a much needed half-inch of sink on the pitch. Porcello’s sinker is looking just about the same as it did last year, if you discount the tiny bit of arm-side run he’s lost.
Additionally, his changeup is looking much, much better, gaining almost an inch of sink without sacrificing an ounce of arm-side run. The curveball is also looking much sharper, picking up significant amounts of horizontal and vertical break. The difference on the cutter/slider (we’ll go with cutter from here on out) is tough to tell due to small sample size, but it looks like it’s gained a good amount of sideways break as well as sink this season.
These numbers show some good signs for Porcello, but nothing major that would directly lead to such an increase in success. In an attempt to find something more significant, looking at where Porcello’s pitches have been located could be helpful.
The biggest location issue for him last season was his fastball, which seemed to have a propensity for being clobbered out of the park and into gaps for extra bases. Here’s a look at a heatmap of Porcello’s fastballs (four-seamers and sinkers) in 2015:
Here’s the same heatmap for 2016:
So we can see a bit of an adjustment in Porcello’s fastball location this season, but nothing major. He’s not working exclusively in the bottom half of the zone like some sinkerballers (think Dallas Keuchel), but he’s using both sides of the plate well and isn’t afraid to miss out of the zone one way or the other.
The major thing that sticks out, to me, is Porcello’s shift in horizontal location. Last season, his fastballs were pretty much spread out over all parts the plate. This year, he’s working the vast majority of his pitches to his glove side, away from a right-handed hitter. While it’s not as good as locating the ball down in the zone, Porcello is now keeping the ball a bit farther away from the hands of hitters, forcing them to try to shoot the ball to the opposite field instead of turning on and crushing pitches.
While the increase in movement and the shift in location are both small, positive signs, the biggest factor in taking Porcello’s game to the next level has been his pitch usage an sequencing. As we noted earlier, he’s gone away from his four-seam fastball more beginning toward the end of last season, instead opting to rely heavily upon his sinker as a primary pitch. Here’s a look at Porcello’s pitch usage last season, broken down by batter handedness and differences in the count:
Here’s the same table for 2016:
The biggest difference, quite obviously, is the increase in sinker usage in all counts, to all batters. After that, the biggest difference for me is the increase in the number of changeups Porcello is throwing to left-handed hitters. Last season, he used the pitch primarily when he was behind in the count to lefties, trying to catch them off-balance when they were expecting a fastball. Now, he’s throwing the pitch much more often to open at-bats, doubling his first-pitch changeup usage from 11 percent last season to 22 percent this season. He’s also using the changeup more in even counts to left-handed hitters.
Against righties, Porcello is not doing too much different from last season except for throwing more sinkers. He’s using the changeup a little bit more, especially when the batter is ahead or there are two strikes, but not significantly so. He’s also throwing a lot of first pitch and even-count curveballs, but he did that last season as well. He likes the cutter against righties too, but that’s also something he did last season.
The one thing that’s most interesting, and likely the most telling, is Porcello’s use of the four-seam fastball. Last year, Porcello used the pitch in all counts pretty evenly. This season, he’s using the pitch almost exclusively when he’s ahead in the count or has two strikes on the batter.
So far, the strategy has worked well, as batters are whiffing on the four-seamer, which he throws just 92 miles per hour. Also, likely due to the little extra sink he’s gained on the pitch as well as its situational usage, the four-seamer has generated three percent more ground balls (4.0 in 2015 vs. 7.0 in 2016) and over one percent fewer fly balls (4.8 in 2015 vs. 3.5 in 2016).
Porcello’s change in usage patterns with the fastball have made his secondary pitches much more effective in 2016. You can see how this is taking effect by looking at a comparison of Porcello’s whiff rates among his secondary pitches from last year versus this year:
Overall, it looks good that Porcello seems to have made some key adjustments in order to become a more effective pitcher this season. As the sample sizes on Porcello’s pitches grow, it will be interesting to see if this new sequencing strategy remains effective or if teams can begin to adjust themselves by changing their scouting reports on Porcello.
As it stands now, Porcello looks to have turned a corner, and it couldn’t have come at a better time. With newly acquired ace David Price and longtime frustration Clay Buchholz struggling somewhat out of the gate, Porcello has given the Red Sox a legitimate chance to win every time out on the mound this year.
Now, in the first season of his big extension, Porcello needs to keep up his good progress in order to validate his price tag and endear himself to the Boston fans. As well as, you know, help the Red Sox win ballgames and avoid another last-place finishing in the America League East.