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Rick Porcello’s early-season performance

Rick Porcello hasn’t been his 2016 self through his first three starts

Tampa Bay Rays v Boston Red Sox Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Heading into the season, many analysts both national and local had Rick Porcello pegged as an obvious regression candidate. After he came out of nowhere to win one of the most muddled Cy Young races in recent memory, it was an argument that made some sense. However, it was my belief that people were taking it a little too far. Everyone could agree that he almost certainly wasn’t going to repeat as the best pitcher in the American League, but there were signs that his performance was largely sustainable. I was relatively confident in him being one of the better number twos in the league or maybe the best number three, depending on what happened with David Price.

Through his first three starts, that hasn’t really been the case. Porcello has tossed 16 23 innings over those outings, and has an ugly 7.56 ERA for a 57 ERA+. Of course, his last time out only lasted 4 13 frames when he allowed eight runs to cross the plate, and an outing like that will destroy an ERA in a small sample. On the other hand, his ERA was 4.38 through his first two starts, so it’s not like he was dominant before his implosion at the hands of the Rays. Plus, his peripherals don’t really tell a much more encouraging story. He currently owns a 5.36 FIP and a 7.13 DRA, both of which I don’t need to tell you are horrible marks. So, with this just being a small blip on the radar that is an entire baseball season, is there any reason to worry?

To figure that out, it seemed reasonable to look at what’s been different over his first three starts this year compared to his entire 2016 campaign. If you just look at his three true outcomes (strikeouts, walks and home runs), you’ll notice some stark differences. For one, his strikeout rate is through the roof, as he’s setting down more than a batter per inning. His walks are up slightly, but not by any significant margin. Finally, his home run rate has skyrocketed, but that is a direct result of his start against Tampa, as he allowed four dingers in the outing.

Tampa Bay Rays v Boston Red Sox Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

In addition to the home runs, Porcello is just straight-up giving a bunch of hits. Through these three starts, he has allowed a batting average on balls in play of .385, about 115 points above last year’s mark. Much of that is certainly small sample size-related noise, but it’s worth keeping in mind as we dig a little deeper into some of the changes he’s undergone compared to his Cy Young campaign.

Backing away from the batted ball stuff for now, I wanted to start with Porcello’s plate discipline numbers. I think it’s fair to say that, while he was certainly helped by a low BABIP in 2016, his ability to control the strike zone was the biggest reason for success a year ago. He was a strike machine, walking just 1.3 per nine innings and hitting the zone over 52 percent of the time, per Baseball Prospectus.

It seems in the early going this year, opponents are making their adjustment to get the advantage back against Porcello. Honestly, we probably should have seen this coming, though I know that it never cross my mind for whatever reason. After he pounded the zone so often last year, hitters are being much more aggressive against the righty. For the first time in his career, opponents are swinging on more than half of Porcello’s pitches and their swing rate is up by over five percentage points from last year. The Red Sox 2017 Opening Day starter hasn’t yet made his counter-adjustment, as he’s pounding the zone even more than last year. In fact, among the 71 pitchers who have thrown at least 200 pitches this season, Porcello is hitting the zone at the highest rate. This has been counterproductive, as the increase in swings are coming on those pitches. There’s been a marginal increase on swings against pitches out of the zone, but the bulk of the increase has come against strikes. This strike-heavy approach is probably a big reason for his increase in strikeout rate, but it hasn’t been an even trade off thus far.

Beyond the plate discipline, there’s also been a change in repertoire usage that is a little bit concerning. If you recall, when he was struggling so badly in 2015 before hitting the disabled list, he mostly ditched his sinker in favor of his four-seam fastball. The result was an increase in strikeouts but also in hard contact. Sound familiar? Early on this season, he’s throwing his four seamer 35 percent of the time and his sinker just 23 percent of the time. Last year, the split was 22 percent versus 41 percent, with his sinker being the preferred offering. It’s unclear why he’s made this change, but it’s having predictable results. Although none of the homers he’s allowed in the young season have come against the fastball, they are resulting in line drives 40 percent of the time, per Brooks Baseball. The heavy usage is likely the biggest factor, outside of pure luck, for the high BABIP that Porcello is currently allowing.

At the end of the day, we’re still just talking about three starts and it’s far too early to worry about Porcello. Some of his numbers are heavily skewed by his awful outing against the Rays, and everyone is entitled to one or two of those a year, even if they aren’t ideal. Some other numbers are likely just the result of the miniscule sample. With that being said, there are adjustments to be made. For one thing, all indications are that he needs to go back to his sinker-heavy approach. It might not result in the same number of strikeouts, but it’s been proven that it gives him the best results. On top of that, it might be best for him to actually miss the zone a bit less, at least while hitters are being more aggressive. Porcello is a smart pitcher who has turned it around in much worse circumstances, so I’m still fairly confident we’re going to get the Porcello we were all hoping for in 2017.