Welcome to Over The Monster’s One Big Question series. For the next 40 (week)days, we will be trying to answer one important question for each player on the Red Sox 40-man roster. The goal is to find one interesting portion of each player’s game to watch for, whether that be in spring training or the early regular season. We’ll be going straight down the list on the team’s roster page, meaning we’ll be going in alphabetical order through each position group, starting with the pitchers. Today, we’re highlighting Rick Porcello.
The Question: Should we really expect tons of regression from Rick Porcello?
I’ve had a bit of a strange history with Rick Porcello. Or, better put, I’ve had a history of wrongness with Rick Porcello. I wasn’t wild about the trade that brought him here, and I was especially wary of the extension the team signed him to shortly after. After the disaster that was his 2015 season, I was feeling pretty good about my assertions. He turned everything around last year, though. Sure, it could be argued that he wasn’t the most deserving Cy Young winner — I’d have probably given my vote to Corey Kluber — but Porcello was undeniably phenomenal throughout the 2016 campaign.
The performance came out of nowhere even for those that weren’t as down on the righty as I was. As it typically goes when players have this kind of surprising season, the natural reaction is to brace for heavy regression the following year. Porcello is not immune to this, as he’s one of the most popular regression picks in 2017. Despite my former opinions on the pitcher, I’m not at all convinced he’s going to be all that different of a pitcher in the coming year.
The most noteworthy success in Porcello’s 2016 was clearly his control. He was elite in this category last year, walking just 3.6 percent of his opponents. That was the second best rate among all qualified pitchers and is less than half of the league-average rate. The thing is, he’s always been good in this area. He’s walked fewer than six percent of his opponents in every season since his rookie year, and has allowed fewer than two free passes per nine innings in each of the last three years. So, while 2016 was certainly his best control season, it wasn’t a huge leap from his career norms.
On top of that, he didn’t exactly fluke his way into these control numbers, either. Porcello made a more concerted effort to hit the strike zone, and it clearly paid off. According to Baseball Prospectus’ plate discipline numbers, he hit the zone 52 percent of the time. That was the 13th best rate among the 117 players who tossed at least 2000 pitches. When he did miss the strike zone, he induced swings 31 percent of the time. That rate put him firmly in the top half of the league in this area, and was better than his career mark. BP also has new control/command metrics that were released this week, and Porcello rated out elitely in the control number. It’s fair to expect a little regression from Porcello here, but I’d still bet on an elite walk rate between four and five percent next year.
Besides the control, the former Tiger also benefited from tons of success on balls in play in 2016. If there’s any singular stat that will force people to scream regression, it’s batting average on balls in play. Last year, Porcello held hitters to a .269 BABIP, about 30 points lower than any season since his rookie year and about 40 points lower than his career average. It’s fair to say there was probably a little bit of luck there.
However, it’s not at all fair to point entirely to good fortune being on Porcello’s side. He had plenty to do with his success in this area, using good command to induce weaker contact than normal. According to Fangraphs’ batted ball data, he allowed line drives at his lowest rate since 2010. Meanwhile, he’s also lowered his ground ball rate and increased his fly ball rate. This doesn’t sound like a good thing — and it’s part of the reason he still had a merely average home run rate despite his other successes — but it’s actually helpful in preventing hits. At least, historically that’s true. While last season batters produced essentially the same batting average on grounders compared to fly balls, the former has yielded higher averages in every other year.
While increasingly complex defensive strategies will probably keep this gap close moving forward, Porcello is still well served allowing a decent number of fly balls. The Red Sox, of course, boast one of the best outfield defenses in the league. On most nights in 2017, they’ll be able to play three outfielders who could all be strong center fielders. Even Chris Young, who is their worst defensive outfielder, is an asset out there.
On the other side of the coin, the infield defense could be even stronger. Porcello still induces a ground ball rate in the 40 percent range, and could get back closer to 50 percent in 2017. If that’s the case, he still has one of the best second basemen in the game with Dustin Pedroia and a solid shortstop with Xander Bogaerts. At the corners, Boston should see a bit of improvement from a more polished presence in Mitch Moreland at first base. Third base is no guarantee, but Pablo Sandoval has shown strong defense in the past.
So, the team should be able to help Porcello prevent hits at a high rate, and he can do his part by repeating his batted ball profile from the year before. That’s obviously easier said than done, but BP’s pitch tunneling data suggests that could be possible. According to the data, Porcello is in the top 20 percent of the league in terms of late-break, which intuitively suggests he should be tough to square up. He’s also in the top half of the league in release:tunnel, which measures how difficult it is to distinguish between pitches. All of this points to Porcello having a hell of a lot to do with the weak contact he induced.
The former disappointment had the best year of his career last year and outperformed everyone’s expectations. Luckily, it looks largely repeatable. He should continue to limit walks at an elite rate, even if it’s not quite as elite as last year. Between his command, pitch tunneling and the elite defense behind him, Porcello should also be able to maintain a BABIP in the .275-.285 range. When you combine that with a strikeout rate that’s held steady around 20 percent, you have a pitcher you can expect to be well above-average on a consistent basis. If you’re expecting another Cy Young, you’ll probably be disappointed. However, the same can be said if you’re expecting heavy regression from Porcello in 2017.