Has Rick Porcello adjusted from his rough start to the year?

Apr 26, 2017; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Red Sox pitcher Rick Porcello (22) delivers a pitch during the third inning against the New York Yankees at Fenway Park. Mandatory Credit: Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 26, 2017; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Red Sox pitcher Rick Porcello (22) delivers a pitch during the third inning against the New York Yankees at Fenway Park. Mandatory Credit: Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports /

It’s only been a couple games, but Rick Porcello has already made effective adjustments this season.

Before this season started, Red Sox starter Rick Porcello was a favorite pick among analysts to regress in 2017. After winning the Cy Young award a year ago and posting career bests in nearly every important statistical category, it was an argument that held some weight. Marginal regression was a safe assumption, however, I’m not sure anyone reasonably expected him to look like his 2015 self and not the pitcher we saw in 2016 through his first three starts of the year.

Over that sample, Porcello tossed 16.2 innings with a 7.56 ERA and ERA+ of just 56. Granted, one of those starts was his disaster of an outing against the Tampa Bay Rays on April 14 in which he gave up eight earned runs on four homers in 4.1 innings pitched. A performance like that will destroy a pitcher’s ERA in a small sample, however, he entered the game with a 4.38 ERA so it wasn’t like he was lights out before that either.

Something switched following that game, though. In his two most recent starts, Porcello has looked a lot more like the Cy Young winner we saw in 2016. In 13.2 innings pitched, he owns a 1.32 ERA with 14 strikeouts and has allowed just one home run. The strikeout rate might jump off the page, but it doesn’t necessarily explain his success as his K/9 was actually higher over his first three starts (10.00) than the last two (9.54). So what has he done differently that’s been so effective?

In early February, Scott Lauber wrote an article for ESPN to explore whether Porcello could match his win total from last season. The short answer, at least by conventional wisdom, is that he’s almost certainly not going to replicate the winningest season as a Red Sox since Pedro Martinez won 23 in 1999. Wins are an immensely flawed stat and can’t effectively predict how well a pitcher will perform in the future, but Lauber’s article raised an interesting question: Was 2016 a fulfillment of career potential or just an outlier?

More from BoSox Injection

To start, we’ll need to determine what he did differently in 2016 as opposed to his much worse seasons in 2014 and 2015. There are two differences that are most likely to explain his change. First, he ditched his signature sinker two years ago to try to blow away batters with his fastball. At 93 mph, there aren’t many hitters in the major leagues that will be overwhelmed when faced with it. Last season, he utilized his sinker as his primary pitch once more and started to induce soft groundballs.

The second reason is that he changed the way he approached batters from a location standpoint. In the two years prior, Porcello worked horizontally across the zone without much success. In 2016, he changed that approach and started mixing his locations vertically. As Lauber noted, a lot of Porcello’s success came from supporting his signature sinker with a slider and changeup that he threw more often. His reliance on an up-down approach, as opposed to left-right, could have supported the effectiveness of his secondary pitches.

Following the trend set last season, I was interested to see if a similar pattern had established itself over his first five starts this year. Over his first three games, when Porcello was ineffective and generally bad, he fell back into his trend of working the zone horizontally and paid for it. That issue was compounded during the game against the Rays, in which he lived over the heart of the plate.

His next start came on April 19 in Toronto and with a game score of 63, it has been his best of the year thus far. He kicked the old strategy and returned to moving his location vertically with great success. Based on a heat map that includes his last start as well, it looks like he’s moving back to what worked well for him in 2016.

When asked about what Porcello has to do to maintain the success he had, Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski had this to say.

"Maybe as a youngster, probably even when he signed the contract with the Red Sox, he tried to do too much. He tried to be better at times. We all want to be better. He’ll work to be better in that he’ll always try to fine-tune his pitching, but I don’t think he’ll try to do too much anymore. He knows what makes him successful at this point."

The line that really sticks out is that he won’t “try to do too much anymore.” To me, that means that Porcello’s developed an awareness of what he is and isn’t capable of doing on a baseball field. In essence, he’s not going to blow hitters away with a fastball over the plate and he’s come to realize that. Instead, he’ll have to mix his diverse array of pitches in effective spots. Sounds simple, but it’s true.

When you compare the two samples, small as they are, that pattern emerged once again over his first two starts this season. Whether by choice or mechanical error, he relied too heavily on pitching to one location in his first three starts. It was evident that what he was doing wasn’t working, and he made an effort to adjust. Over his last two, he’s looked like the Cy Young winner we saw just a year ago.

Next: Sale looks to continue dominance over the Yankees

Given the present state of the Red Sox offense, their pitching staff will need to do all it can to help this team win games. As their number two starter, Porcello will be as important as any man in their rotation in determining how this season turns out. On an individual level, he’ll have to keep relying on what works for him, to make his starts work for the team.