One month after we fretted about him in spring training, Rick Porcello is pitching much like he did at the end of last year, when he was throwing the best ball of his career. As Evan Drellich noted in the Sunday Boston Herald, before Porcello's 6-1/3 shutout innings against the Braves on Monday, he's been great for months:
From Aug. 26, 2015, through Saturday, Porcello — who’s scheduled to start Monday in Atlanta — had the eighth best strikeout rate among American League starters, 9.51 per nine innings.
That’s better than Chris Sale in the same stretch. That’s better than American League Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel, better than Cole Hamels and Felix Hernandez.
Porcello had the sixth lowest walks per nine rate in the same span, 1.64, and a top-25 ERA as well: 3.52.
For these reasons, it would be less accurate to say he is "back" to Being Rick Porcello than it is to say that this Porcello is an entirely new Porcello, one distinct from, and potentially better than, the Porcelli of yesteryear. The old one would lull you to sleep. The new one gets nasty, with a side effect of getting taken yard.
Porcello's 10.5 strikeouts per nine in 2016 are just a teeny bit above his pre-2016 rate of 5.8. It's also a sizeable jump even from last season’s 7.8, which was his previous career high. He’s striking out a ton more people while actually throwing slower and giving up far more home runs than usual, but Porcello is also giving up a lot less hard contact. His 3.51 ERA might not be giving him enough credit, if you can overlook some longballs, as Yahoo’s oft-burned-by-Porcello Scott Pianowski makes the case for here:
A 3-0 record and a 0.93 WHIP, that’s excellent. A 4.66 ERA [Porcello's ERA entering Monday's game], that’s a problem. Porcello has allowed five homers but less hard contact. Even the ERA estimators can’t agree: FIP suggests 4.70, xFIP offers 2.81. (Do you believe in home-run forgiveness? We could go 15 rounds, lost in that rabbit hole.).
We can try to parse it with help from the ProJo’s Brian MacPherson:
Rick Porcello before and after his DL stint, with numbers from @brooksbaseball. Look at his sinker, changeup usage. pic.twitter.com/b0MPXi7Aug— Brian MacPherson (@brianmacp) April 21, 2016
The important numbers here are for the cutter, which is the one which Porcello has been taken deep all but once this year. Notice that he’s throwing it less, getting more swings and misses and giving up some serious dongage. On an intuitive level, it makes sense that if a batter was prepared for a sinker, which Porcello now smartly throws more than half of the time, and the batter got a weak cutter, he might be swinging just under the sweet spot enough to crush it -- but that is just (figurative) spitballing.
By chopping his fastball usage in half, Porcello has increased his whiff rate on his three major secondary pitches -- dramatically so, in the case of the changeup. Just as importantly, he has turned the twofold bump he saw in fastball swinging strike rate when he arrived into a threefold bump. It looks for all the world that he’s made real, substantive changes on both short-term and long-term tracks. One has to think this is what the Red Sox had in mind when they gave him $82.5 million, and an optimist might look at last year and say that if it took a half-season for Porcello to figure out how to maximize his talents, so be it. Baseball usually makes it hard to be an optimist, though, so you’d be within your rights not to believe in a guy who is still giving up an uncomfortable number of homers.
However, as Baseball Prospectus Boston's Nick Canelas wrote in a great in-depth piece on Monday:
Three games is a small sample size. If this was enough to draw conclusions, David Price would be a bust and Steven Wright would be the ace. For all we know, Porcello could have the first of a string of 2015-esque clunkers in him Monday night. However, it’s ok to feel hopeful about 2016 Porcello.
He’s shown some of the same flaws, of course. He’s given up homers at a 7.69 percent rate with his cutter, per Brooks Baseball, and he’s still getting hammered on pitches up in the zone. But this season has been all about balance for Porcello. His sinker is certainly his go-to pitch, but he’s mixing in the right secondary stuff in the right locations to get outs. And he’s yet to let innings get away from him, which has allowed him to limit the damage and go deeper into games.
To wit, here's the commissioner on Porcello's inning-eating capabilities:
The last time Rick Porcello failed to get the Red Sox to the 7th was July 29— Peter Gammons (@pgammo) April 21, 2016
For a team with a bullpen like Boston's, this is probably the single best outcome for which we can hope. If we're still unsure about the sample size, just know that Porcello's next start is in Yankee Stadium. If he can make it there, of course, he can make it anywhere. One year after a disastrously down season, it's nice to know Porcello is going places.