Red Sox starter Rick Porcello continues to be plagued by home runs

BOSTON, MA - APRIL 07: Rick Porcello #22 of the Boston Red Sox pitches against the Tampa Bay Rays in the first inning at Fenway Park, on April 7, 2018, in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
BOSTON, MA - APRIL 07: Rick Porcello #22 of the Boston Red Sox pitches against the Tampa Bay Rays in the first inning at Fenway Park, on April 7, 2018, in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images) /

Boston Red Sox starter Rick Porcello has been victimized by the home run ball, including a trio served up to the Cleveland Indians in Monday’s loss.

Rick Porcello was cruising through the first four innings of his latest outing. He masterfully navigated a dangerous Cleveland Indians lineup while outdueling reigning Cy Young Corey Kluber. Then the night quickly unraveled for the Boston Red Sox as Porcello was undone by his greatest nemesis – the home run.

It started with a solo shot from Melky Cabrera to lead off the fifth inning. One run, no big deal. The Red Sox still led by two at that point and were in great shape when Porcello retired the next three batters in order.

Porcello is a pitcher who throws strikes. He attacks the zone and rarely walks batters. When you live in the strike zone you’re occasionally going to get bit by the home run. It happens. As long as you limit it to solo shots by keeping the other batters from reaching base then the long ball typically won’t come back to haunt you.

Give the opposing team a gift by putting runners on ahead of the home run and it won’t end well. That’s what happened to Porcello in each of the next two innings.

Francisco Lindor hit a harmless ground ball to the first base side. It should have been a routine out but Porcello hesitated on his way to cover first base. The delay cost him as the speedy Lindor beat Porcello to the bag for an infield single. One batter later, Michael Brantley crushed a slider that just didn’t slide enough into the bullpen in right field. Suddenly, the game was tied.

Jason Kipnis drew a one-out walk in the seventh inning. Porcello has always been stingy with walks. This was the only one he allowed all game but it hurt. Almost as much as the line drive off the bat of Yan Gomes that followed. The 95.2 mph comebacker nailed Porcello in the abdomen. He somehow recovered enough to flip the ball to second base to get the lead runner before collapsing to the ground in pain.

If Porcello fielded the ball cleanly instead of getting drilled by it then he likely escapes with an inning-ending double play. If he let the ball go by him then his middle infielders probably turn two. Instead, the Red Sox settle for only one on a fielder’s choice.

Manager Alex Cora joined the trainer on the field to check on Porcello. He claimed he only had the wind knocked out of him but he was fine. Maybe he was. Any soreness that lingered from getting hit by a line drive may not have played a part in what happened next. Even if that’s true, it’s hard to believe the pitcher wasn’t a bit rattled by getting hit. Pitch count was already dictating that Porcello’s night was nearing an end. No matter how much the starter pleaded his case that he was fine, Cora should have pulled him at that point.

He didn’t. Porcello stayed in the game to face No. 9 hitter Greg Allen. A fringe player who has been up and down between Triple-A and the big leagues all season. One who has displayed very little pop with a slugging percentage that barely cracked .300 to go along with only one home run this season.

You can guess how that panned out. Allen saw a changeup that hung over the middle of the plate and belted it over the right field fence for a home run.

Five runs allowed, all of which crossed the plate on a trio of home runs served up by Porcello.

Porcello’s ongoing battle with the home run ball

The long ball is nothing new to Porcello. He led the league with 38 home runs allowed last season. He has now coughed up 22 homers this year, tied for 8th most in the American League. Porcello has given up at least one home run in five consecutive starts with a total of eight allowed over that span.

Porcello’s 4.14 ERA seems fairly mediocre but he’s pitched better than this figure suggests. He’s striking out nearly a batter per inning and usually doesn’t let himself get beat by walks. His 3.90 FIP is slightly more appealing and a better indicator of his performance.

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Porcello’s 3.81 xFIP, which adjusts a pitcher’s ERA to account for league-average home run/fly ball rates, is even better. His 13.3 HR/FB rate is the ninth highest among AL starters. Some of that is on him but there’s a bit of bad luck mixed in. His 32.8 Hard Hit Percentage is the 11th lowest among qualified AL starters so it’s not as if opposing hitters are routinely hitting rockets against him. Yet when they do, a disturbingly high percentage of them leave the ballpark.

If his home run rate were adjusted to where these metrics expect it should be then Porcello could subtract a few homers from his total over the course of the season. His ERA would sink below the 4.00 mark. Losses such as the one against Cleveland could have turned into a win.

Pitchers who throw strikes and toss as many innings as Porcello will inevitably give up home runs. Aside from a few strikeout artists like Chris Sale, it’s going to happen. It shouldn’t be happening quite this much to a pitcher of Porcello’s caliber yet based on his track record it doesn’t seem likely that he’ll suddenly stop serving them up on a platter.

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He can survive the homers when they are of the solo variety but if he puts runners on base ahead of those blasts then the home runs will be his downfall.