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2017 Red Sox Review: Rick Porcello

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A look back at the disappointing year for Rick Porcello

MLB: Toronto Blue Jays at Boston Red Sox Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to the Red Sox Review series. It’s a fairly standard feature in which we will review the year that was for every player who made a decently large impact on the Red Sox this year. How do I come up with that definition? Completely arbitrarily, of course! The list of players I’m using can be seen here, and if I am missing anyone please let me know in the comments. Anyway, for the players who are included we will look at the positives of their 2017, the negatives, review their One Big Question from the preseason and look ahead to what’s on the table for 2018. Today, we discuss Rick Porcello.

The Positives

Coming off a Cy Young campaign, albeit one for which many didn’t think he deserved the award, the expectations were relatively high for Rick Porcello. I think most of us knew he wasn’t going to be quite as good in 2017 as he was in 2016, but he fell off significantly this year. I think, in the end, his season was a little better than the general perception would suggest, but there still weren’t many positives on the year for Porcello.

One positive that was there was just staying durable on the mound and being able to eat innings. Clearly, the expectations are higher for Porcello with his contract. They need him to be someone other than a guy who can simply eat 200+ innings year-to-year, but it’s at least something he contributed in 2017. He stayed healthy all year long, making 33 starts and topping 200 innings for the second consecutive season and third time in four years. This kind of durability has become a staple of Porcello’s skillset and gives him a relatively high floor in terms of value. Of course, many pitchers have been durable until they aren’t.

MLB: Boston Red Sox at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

On top of simply staying on the mound, Porcello found a way to miss plenty of bats in 2017 as well. Clearly, more than just racking up strikeouts is necessary to put up numbers in this league, but Porcello at least got part of that equation. He ended up with 181 strikeouts and eight per nine innings, the latter being a career-high. This was largely the result of him pounding the zone, a strategy that worked in 2016 and didn’t work as well in 2017. He got a lot more swings on those pitches, and while there was plenty of hard contact Porcello also induced a career-high whiff-rate on those pitches.

Finally, Porcello had one strong two-month stretch in the middle of the year where it looked like he may be turning a corner and gearing up for a big second half. From the start of July through the end of August he pitched to a very respectable 3.55 ERA while averaging over six innings per outing.

The Negatives

While you kind of had to stretch a bit to find some positives in Porcello’s 2017 campaign, it wasn’t too hard to find the negatives. First and foremost, his disappointing year was marked by allowing a ton of home runs. Obviously, it needs to be mentioned that balls were flying out of every park in the league this year and more homers were hit in 2017 than any other year in MLB history. A lot of pitchers had home run problems. Still, that doesn’t make one feel any better about Porcello allowing a league-leading 38 home runs and giving up 1.7 homers per nine innings. Even in this environment, it was a major problem. He simply left too many pitches over the plate and his opponents were ready to jump on every mistake he threw. Although he’s always been a bit homer prone in his three-year Red Sox career, he took things to a new level this year.

It wasn’t just the home runs that gave him issues, though. There was a lot of hard contact in general. In fact, according to Fangraphs he allowed hard contact over 38 percent of the time, a rate that ranked third-highest in the league among qualified starters. This is how the righty ended up allowing a .322 batting average on balls in play, a mark a whopping 52 points higher than 2017. All of this helped lead to his 4.65 ERA. Granted, that number sounds worse than it really is due to the wacky run environment across the league. Adjusting for league-average and park effects, it was actually only slightly below average. Still, we were expecting more than slightly below average from Porcello this season.

Digging a little bit deeper, Porcello also struggled a bit with control this year. At least, he struggled compared to his own standards. He’s always been someone that has been able to limit walks, and his 2.1 walks he allowed per nine innings is far from a major issue. However, it is his highest rate with the Red Sox and highest since 2013. Additionally, he had a horrendous stretch from mid-April through June where he pitched to a 5.15 ERA. I could keep going, but really most places you look with Porcello’s 2017 could be considered a negative.

The Big Question

Should we really expect tons of regression from Rick Porcello?

Heading into the year, as I said above, most of us knew Porcello wasn’t going to be as good as he was in 2016. There were some real red flags that showed he was the beneficiary of some extreme luck last year. That being said, I was among those who thought he would be more than acceptable as a number two or three starter and be well above-average. As it turns out, of course, there really was a ton of regression in store for Porcello, and it’s starting to look more and more like 2016 was the outlier rather than 2015.

Looking ahead to 2018

If everyone is healthy, Porcello slots in as the number four starter for the Red Sox and that is probably the perfect spot for him at this point. I think he’s probably a little better than he showed in 2018, but at the end of the day he seems to me to be a league-average starter who will eat 200+ innings. That doesn’t sound like a $20 million pitcher, but it’s a valuable piece for this Red Sox team. Of course, I’ve also been way off on what to expect from him in each of the last two years, so it’s probably time to stop trying to predict Porcello.