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An overdue appreciation: Rick Porcello is awesome

The Opening Day starter and Cy Young Award winner is the clear No. 2 pitcher on the Red Sox, but he rules.

MLB: Pittsburgh Pirates at Boston Red Sox
I think that’s a smile.
Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

I’ve got to hand it to Rick Porcello He looked like the reigning Cy Young Award winner for most Monday’s opener, only to clearly tire in the seventh inning, which is allowed in the first game of the season. I was surprised at how good he was, but I shouldn’t have been.

I’ve spent the better part of the offseason saying Porcello is going to regress, statistically, and I still believe he will. In so doing, however I fell into the trap of basically saying -- and certainly thinking -- that he wasn’t actually very good. This is wrong.

The truth is that he is actually quite good, on both a substantive and relative level, even if he’s not, ultimately, overpowering. If he is, to my mind, miscast in the role of the No. 1 starter because he does not overpower hitters and because I insist on parsing silly terms like “No. 1 starter” when I know the actual circumstances behind them. He is in no way the team’s “No. 1 starter,” even if he started on Opening Day. There is a good reason for it and everyone knows it, and it is twofold.

One, in a lower-tier Cy Young Award race, he squeaked by pitchers of superior talent on health, growth and guile to take home the hardware in 2017, and, for his trouble, was given the honorarium of Monday’s start. Two, the Red Sox traded for Chris Sale, and he the presumed best starting pitcher on the Red Sox until further notice because, yes, he has an ability to overpower hitters that Porcello lacks.

You saw it last night, of course, and it was something to behold. Should the Red Sox make the playoffs with a full complement of healthy, rested starters (the flying pigs will be visible from the Monster seats, I’m gold), Sale will almost certainly start game one.

Because he is Chris Sale.

But is Porcello the second-best pitcher? Would he start game two, even if David Price was fully healthy? (The pigs fly, strangely, in a “B” formation.) At this point, all signs point to yes. I’m a Price fan, but my pessimism about this season real and deep. Price is no Sidd Finch or Clayton Kershaw: He is flesh and blood and verifiably strange tendons, and there’s a chance that whatever Price the Sox can roll out this year or the years to follow is simply as good as Porcello. That sounds scary, but is it?

Before last year, it would sound like a nightmare. Now it actually sounds good. If the Sox’ top three is Sale, Porcello and Price, that looks like a lot more raw talent than it did at this point last April. We know Price has it. We now know, surely, that Porcello has it too. This peak is high enough to verifiably mark as “counting.”

But what if we’re counting wrong? What if the second-best pitcher isn’t Price, but another lefty? On “my” Baseball Prospectus Boston podcast “with” Jake Devereaux (of which Jake is the real host), we asked Evan Drellich, newly of CSN New England, if Eduardo Rodriguez could elevate himself to the second-best pitcher on the Sox. Jake and Evan, who are wrong, said that he could.

I’m a big Rodriguez fan, but just as the argument over who’s more overpowering is unfriendly to Porcello with respect to being a No. 1, it’s not just the inconsistency issues that keep E-Rod out of the second tier. It’s a talent issue, or just the ability to harness it, which, in the moment, is the same thing. Or, in my Casey Affleck-at-Dunkin’ voice, Porcello is dealing now, kid. Is it possible Rodriguez is better than Price this year, even if Price pitches effectively? Sure. It’s just neither the status quo nor a relatively likely outcome, merely a possibility that, full disclosure, I still desperately want to happen, even if it makes me wrong.

I just thing E-Rod is too long-arc for this discussion. I’m talking right now. Whatever Porcello is going to be, this is it. E-Rod has a way to go, and for Price, he’s clearly coming down. Only Sale is dealing at or near his peak, and even Porcello would likely agree that he’s better right now: He’s Chris Sale! Of the mere mortals, the non-97 throwing Gumbys, Porcello is the clear best of the rest, which sounds like it’s not saying much, in light of his hardware. It’s a blue ribbon, not a gold medal, but it’s a damn nice ribbon, and fully earned.