Rick Porcello came to the Red Sox with the reputation for being a groundball pitcher.
In addition, Boston's trade for Porcello happened in concert with an offseason full of moves for starters who found success by keeping the ball on the ground. Wade Miley and Justin Masterson joined Porcello and the newly acquired Joe Kelly as hurlers that liked to pound the lower portions of the strike zone. With umpires calling an increasing number of low pitches for strikes, the narrative went at the time, the Red Sox had loaded up on pitchers who could take advantage of the changed environment across MLB.
In many ways, Porcello looked to be the poster child for Boston's new approach. Over his six years with the Tigers, Porcello posted a groundball rate north of 50% five times (he finished at 49% in 2014). With a strong infield defense behind him in Boston, many believed Porcello could thrive by continuing to do what he'd done throughout his career.
However, Porcello hasn't maintained this approach during his first season with the Red Sox. In fact, the right-hander is generating fewer groundballs in 2015 than he ever has by quite some margin. Porcello's groundball rate has dipped down to 44%, which is nearly six percentage points lower than what he garnered a year ago.
The main reason behind this is Porcello's increased reliance on his four-seam fastball in lieu of the sinker that helped him produce so many worm-burners in his time with the Tigers. As the table below shows, the 26-year-old is turning to his four-seamer at a career-high rate and using that sinker less than he ever has.
Porcello entered the season having thrown his sinker 47% of the time during his career. That usage has dipped 12 percentage points in 2015.
As some have pointed out, instead of pounding hitters below the knees with his sinker, Porcello is now using his four-seamer to attack the upper portions of the strike zone with greater regularity.
The results thus far haven't been pretty. The righty enters Wednesday with the sixth-highest ERA among qualified starters at 5.54, which would be the worst single-season mark of his career.
He's also had consistent problems with the home-run ball, and his current 1.26 HR/9 rate stands as a career-worst as well. Porcello has given up a homer in eight of his 15 starts this season, and in five of those outings, he's allowed multiple long balls.
These aren't the results the Red Sox were expecting when they traded for Porcello this offseason before handing him a four-year, $82.5 million extension back in April.
On one hand, you can see the reasons why Porcello sought to be more aggressive with his four-seamer. He's garnering more whiffs than he has in the past, with his swinging-strike rate standing at a career-best 8.7%. His strikeout rate, meanwhile, currently sits nearly four percentage points above his career average.
For most pitchers, generating more strikeouts is a good thing, the type of outcome that leads to better results. In this sense, it feels counterintuitive to think Porcello should alter his strategy.
But for Porcello, these extra strikeouts have come with a cost—harder contact against and too many balls that have left the yard. Working up in the zone always comes with risks, and for someone like Porcello--who will never pump his four-seamer into the upper-90s—too many elevated fastballs have found the barrels of opponents' bats. And even despite the adjustments he's made, Porcello still isn't producing anything in the region of elite strikeout numbers.
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That Porcello now calls Fenway (instead of the more spacious confines of Comerica Park) home makes his new fly-ball tendencies more problematic. Having home-run heavy offenses like the Blue Jays, Orioles and Yankees in the same division doesn't help either.
At this point, Porcello needs to get back to being the pitcher he was in Detroit, and the one Red Sox fans were expecting to see prior to this season. Whiffs are great, but not when they come at the expense of overall performance, and after 15 starts, the results clearly haven't been good enough.
Given that he's found plenty of success in the past with a sinker-heavy approach, Porcello should look to churn out groundballs with regularity once again. He'll have the luxury of pitching in front of a solid infield defense (especially when Dustin Pedroia returns) and, in all likelihood, better avoid the home-run problems that have plagued him this season.
The Red Sox, for their part, shouldn't hesitate to nudge Porcello back toward his comfort zone of keeping the ball low. With a rotation that suddenly looks better than it did to begin the season, an improved Porcello could go a long way in getting Boston back in the AL East race.
At the very least, the Red Sox need Porcello to work out his deficiencies for him to be anywhere near the starter they thought they committed a four-year contract to just a few months ago.