Eighty two and a half million dollars is a large amount of money in any context. It’s a little less impressive in terms of baseball money, but over the course of four years, it is still a bundle of cash. That, in overly simple terms, is the obvious reason to wary of this Rick Porcello extension that was signed after Monday’s win. Of course, there are reasons to be excited about the deal. Marc outlined them yesterday, and they’re all fair points. To me, it just comes down to being willing to take on that kind of risk for a pitcher of Porcello’s caliber. The Red Sox were willing to. I wouldn’t have been. I’ll go over some of the reasons I feel this way.
Risk is a funny word when talking about multiyear deals for pitchers. Every deal is risky. Pitchers are breaking at an alarming rate across the league, so any sort of commitment to someone who throws baseballs for a living is a scary endeavor. With Porcello, the risk comes in another form, though. For all of the talk about his potential throughout his career, he’s really only had one definitively good season based on results. The good thing is that season happened to be the last one. He finally had his ERA match his peripherals as he pitched to a 116 ERA+, his first ever over 100. The Red Sox are betting on that being the norm rather than the 90-99 ERA+ that he had pitched to prior to 2014. There are plenty of reasons for that to happen - namely his control and ground ball rate - but his low K-rate and reliance on contact makes it equally as likely that he settles in as merely an average pitcher. Those guys are fine and important for a winning ball club, but not for $20 million a year.
Style of Pitching
I touched a bit on his pitching style above, and it doesn’t fit the profile for someone I want to hand this big of a chunk of the payroll. He’s a contact pitcher, striking out just 14 percent of his opponents at a time when punch outs are coming at a higher rate than ever. He brought the rate up close to league-average two years ago, but fell back to 15 percent in 2014. To offset that, he relies on ground balls. Ben touched on this yesterday, but it’s just another sign that the Red Sox are going all in on these types as well as their infield defense. It’s a strategy that could very well pay off, but it’s putting an uncomfortable amount of faith in Xander Bogaerts improving substantially on defense, Dustin Pedroia aging gracefully in the field, Mike Napoli sticking around at first, and Pablo Sandoval staying nimble at third. Individually, it’s easy to bet on each of those things. It becomes a lot more difficult to believe all of the above can happen.
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In addition to this, Porcello’s ground ball rate fell down below 50 percent last season per Fangraphs, and ranked 25th among 88 qualified pitchers. It's a one-year sample so it's not something to worry about too much, but it's certainly something to monitor. He also gives up a good amount of hard contact for a contact-oriented pitcher. He’s carried above-average line drive rates each of the last three years, and he’s put up merely okay home run rates in his career. It’s a style that can lead to success, but there are alarming signs that make me wary of handing this kind of pitcher $82.5 million.
The projected open market worth
One of the biggest reasons I’m seeing to support this deal is the fact that Porcello could have beaten this had he reached the open market, particularly in the years. That may very well be true! However, this theoretical six-year, $100+ million dollar deal comes with the very valuable knowledge of what he does in 2015. This is a really important year for how we perceive Porcello. It’s easy to say, "He’s leaving Detroit and their dumpster fire infield defense, so now he’s going to be the 115+ ERA+ pitcher from now on." It’s just far from a guarantee, for all of the reasons I’ve talked about already. Basically, I reject the premise that he was definitely set to make huge money over six or more years just because of his age.
The other thing I’m hearing a lot of is that we need to recalibrate what $20 million means, and it’s absolutely true. Baseball is flushed with cash right now, and payrolls are unsurprisingly going up. $20 million in 2016 is not the same as $20 million in 2006. With that being said, it’s still a lot of money. It may not be what it costs to sign the elite arms, but it’s the price for the next tier of guys. Is Porcello really that kind of pitcher? I don’t think he is.
Here we have the crux of the support for the extension. Porcello is in a really strange situation where he’s hitting entering his last year before his first shot at free agency in his age-26 season. Players of this age don’t hit the open market like this, and conventional wisdom says the Red Sox are getting the best years of his career. Is that really true, though? For one thing, he has logged 1,073 innings to this point. It’s great that he has youth, but this isn’t your typical 26-year-old arm. There are significantly more miles on it than his similarly aged peers.
Porcello extension a risk the Sox can afford
The Red Sox finally spent money on a pitcher in a deal that makes all kinds of sense for both sides.
Over the last thirty years, just 14 pitchers have thrown at least 1,000 innings through their age-25 season. Jon Garland and Jim Abbot are the only ones who had a lower K-rate in that time, the former was the only one with a worse FIP, and none of them had a worse ERA+. Overall, it’s a mixed bag of pitchers. There are some all-time greats like Greg Maddux and Clayton Kershaw (we can call him an all-time great, right?), but there are also some disappointments like Garland and Dontrelle Willis. The main takeaway from the list is that improvement is no guarantee based solely on age. For the most part, a pitcher with this kind of track record is what he is. Whether that’s worth $82.5 million over four years is up to you.
This is the biggest worry I have with this deal. If the reason the Red Sox are doing this is to lock in a mid-rotation arm for the long-term, then I recant what I’ve said. Porcello is a fine pitcher, and Boston is better off having him there for the next five years. However, if they are going to do this rather than spend some more in terms of prospects or cash for a higher-tier pitcher, the rotation is going to have questions for the foreseeable future. It’s putting a lot of faith in guys like Henry Owens and Eduardo Rodriguez coming up and becoming front-end arms, something that isn’t overly likely.
Overall, I’m not saying this contract is a disaster. This is the Red Sox, and they can afford this kind of deal. As I said, it’s nice to have the kind of security of knowing you have a solid pitcher like Porcello in your rotation for the foreseeable future. The issues is how much money they’re paying for that security. Despite the age, there’s a good chance he is what he is at this point, and that’s not worth the money he got. In and of itself, that’s not a huge problem. They’re not trying to hang surplus value banners at Fenway, they’re trying to hang championship banners. Having pitchers like Porcello helps get those banners. Unfortunately, rotations headed by pitchers like Porcello have a much harder time getting them.