Red Sox: The evolution of Rick Porcello

Aug 3, 2016; Seattle, WA, USA; Boston Red Sox starting pitcher Rick Porcello (22) throws against the Seattle Mariners during the first inning at Safeco Field. Mandatory Credit: Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports
Aug 3, 2016; Seattle, WA, USA; Boston Red Sox starting pitcher Rick Porcello (22) throws against the Seattle Mariners during the first inning at Safeco Field. Mandatory Credit: Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports /

Boston Red Sox starter Rick Porcello has evolved into one of the game’s best hurlers. However, the path to success is never as easy as it appears.

With the 27th pick of the 2007 Amateur Draft, the Detroit Tigers selected Rick Porcello out of Seton Hall Prep. in New Jersey. He debuted on April 9, 2009, at the age of 20, against the Toronto Blue Jays, taking the loss after going five innings and allowing four earned runs.

On December 11, 2014, in exchange for OF Yoenis Cespedes and P Justin Wilson, Porcello became a member of the Boston Red Sox.

One of Porcello’s greatest assets has been his ability to induce the double play. For his career, he has converted 17% of all Double Play opportunities, a clip much greater than the league average of 11%

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The Rick Porcello that takes the ball every fifth day for the Red Sox is a much different pitcher than the young 20-year old who debuted against the Blue Jays.

In Porcello’s time with the Red Sox, he has made some not-so-subtle alterations to his pitching style. For instance, he has shifted from the ground-ball pitcher in Detroit to much more of a fly-ball pitcher in Boston as evidenced by comparing his 1.12 GB/FB ratio in Detroit to his .85 GB/FB ratio in Boston. Concomitant with this shift is a slight decline in his conversion of double-plays, 18% in Detroit vs. 15% in Boston, and an increase in his HR Rate, 2.4% in Detroit vs. 3.1% in Boston.

While a member of the Red Sox, Porcello’s Strikeout Rate has increased dramatically while his Walk Rate has decreased; in Detroit, only 14.4% of all batters went down “by way of the K” (attributed to the great Don Orsillo) while in Boston, 20.4% of all batters took the long road back to the dugout. Porcello walked 5.8% of all batters in Motown, while in Boston, that value has been reduced to 4.7%.

One of the myriad reasons that Porcello has experienced great success in 2016 is his reduction in favorable hitting counts and increase in favorable pitching counts. For example, between 2009 and 2015, Porcello commenced 60.3% of opponent at-bats with a strike, found himself in 3-0 counts in 4.2% of all at-bats, and only induced 0-2 counts in 22.7% of all at-bats. In 2016, Porcello has begun 64.7% of all at-bats with a strike, found himself in 3-0 counts in only 1.8% of all at-bats, while hammering hitters with an 0-2 count in 30.8% of all at-bats.

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In baseball, getting ahead of the hitter is the basic rule for pitching success. To be specific, from 2009 to 2015, Porcello produced 110 Quality Starts in 208 total starts, a 53% clip. During said time he allowed below league-average numbers in BAA, OBA, and SLG with values of .283, .328, and .426, respectively.

In 2016, where Porcello has been much more effective in getting ahead of opposing hitters, those three values have been reduced to .232, .276, and .383, respectively.

As well as Porcello has pitched this season, last season seems like a distant, ephemeral memory; however, most fans remember how abysmally Porcello pitched to begin the 2015 campaign. I myself questioned why we acquired this player, and then proceeded to hand him an $82 million extension, as for the 1st four months of the season, he was the owner of the highest ERA for any starting pitcher in baseball.

He then went on the DL after his July 29 start and did not pitch again until August 26. I was certain that this was management’s excuse to get him off the field, without embarrassing him with a demotion to the bullpen. However, in what became one of life’s great lessons for me, one should never make assumptions. Porcello clearly did suffer an injury and he must have been attempting to pitch through it, understandable in one’s first season with a new club that just agreed to pay one a large sum of money.

When Porcello returned on August 26, he tossed seven innings of shutout ball against the Chicago White Sox in what, at that time, was his best start of the season. I was shocked but figured that even a blind squirrel finds an acorn. His next start against the Yankees convinced me that he really did sustain an injury and the pitcher that we are witnessing is the “real” Rick Porcello.

Despite a losing effort, Porcello tossed 8 innings, allowing five hits, one earned run, while walking one and striking out 13. That is correct, I said THIRTEEN. I became a believer, got down on my knees, and begged for forgiveness, swearing never to question a player’s health if I have nothing to base it on, other than performance.

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If one were to aggregate Porcello’s statistics from his eight starts upon returning from the Disabled list on August 26, 2015 and his 2016 statistics, one would have exactly one year of very impressive numbers: 21 Victories, 7 Defeats, a 3.20 ERA, 24/33 Quality Starts, a Strikeout Rate of 21.6%, and a Walk Rate of 4.3%.

Numbers such as these might just be worthy of a Cy Young Award.