The Red Sox and Rick Porcello have come to an agreement on a four-year, $82.5 million contract that will see the pitcher remain in Boston through the end of 2019. According to Alex Speier, the deal will begin after 2015, with Porcello making $20 million per year for the first half and $21 million per year for the second.
The deal comes two days before Porcello is set to make his first start for the organization after a trade from the Detroit Tigers, and is the ultimate doubling down from the Red Sox on their belief that Porcello was a victim of circumstance before 2014 rather than of his own shortcomings. From 2009 to 2013, Porcello pitched to a 4.51 ERA, good for a below league-average 94 ERA+. That's obviously not what you want to see from your $82 million pitcher, but he did so pitching in front of some truly horrendous infield defenses which, with his pitch-to-contact style and high ground ball rates, proved a predictably bad mix.
In 2014, however, the Tigers swapped out Prince Fielder for Ian Kinsler, and if Nick Castellanos was still horrendous at third, it's hard to match the disaster that was Detroit's 2013 infield defense. Porcello thrived under the circumstances, posting a career-low 3.43 ERA as his BABIP dipped below .300 for the first time since 2009 and his BB/9 fell below 2.00. It was a combination of improved circumstances and improved pitching, which is easy to believe given that Porcello turned 26 in December.
The floor on this deal approaches disastrous, if not nearly in the realm of, say, the Carl Crawford contract. If the Red Sox have bet wrong and Porcello is simply a mediocre 4.50 ERA pitcher, then they've essentially flushed $20 million down the drain for the next four years. That sort of pitcher can be had for, if not free, then near enough to it.
On the other hand, Porcello is not simply a mediocre pitcher. Or at least hasn't been proven to be one yet. He doesn't record outs in flashy fashion, but since 2010 he ranks in the top 15% of qualified starters in ground ball rate and walk rate. Those are real qualities, and ones that can be taken advantage of by an organization that's willing to put him in the right situation. He's also done all that at an average age that would place most pitchers in Double-A. There is every reason to believe that the best is yet to come from Porcello, even if we're not taking defense into account.
Coming at this intellectually, this seems like a safe bet for the Red Sox. Ground ball pitchers see better results with good defense, that's not in question. Porcello has had bad defenses behind him, particularly when compared to the bunch the Red Sox will put behind him this season. This combination should produce results, and if/when it did, Porcello would have found himself in line for a massive payday. Even just another year like 2014 would see him easily surpass this extension. Good pitchers just do not enter free agency at 26, free of the late-career risk that players like Scherzer, Lester, and Shields carry with them.
Until Porcello does perform, though, it's just difficult to completely trust that intellectual leap the Red Sox have made. It's something that has to be seen to be completely believed, even if we accept that all the logic fits. It wasn't a move that could wait, though. It's that doubt which makes Porcello amenable to an extension in the first place Once he starts to perform, once the front office's theories are confirmed, there would have been nothing left between Porcello and a big payday in the offseason. Given his age, five years would be the lower limit, with seven easy to imagine.
The Red Sox, it seems, would rather trust that their 2015 blueprint is well-founded. In five months, we'll have a good idea of whether history will remember it as an act of appropriate self-confidence, or one of hubris.