The Red Sox rotation is good. I’m not sure this can be debated. That being said, they could really use someone else to take the next step behind Chris Sale and Drew Pomeranz. While those two have been *kissing fingers like a chef* the rest of the rotation has been inconsistent in terms of health and performance. David Price is probably the most likely to step up as he was on a nice roll before hitting the disabled list, but it’s not clear when — or even if — he’ll be able to return. Eduardo Rodriguez has shown great flashes this year, but hasn’t quite been the same since the return from his own injury. Then, there’s Rick Porcello, the man for whom there is little faith in him stepping up and returning to his 2016 form (or something close) for the stretch run.
You can’t really blame anyone for their lack of faith in Porcello right now. It has been an undeniably bad season, as he’s pitched to a 4.70 ERA with a 4.38 FIP and a 4.84 DRA over 145 2⁄3 innings of work. That is....not good. Now, I think it’s fair to say some bad luck has played a role in this poor performance. It’s true in the simple sense of run support, and also on balls in play. The .333 batting average on balls in play that he’s allowed this year would be a career-high and is a 64-point jump from his Cy Young campaign.
At the same time, it would be disingenuous to claim that bad luck is entirely — or even mostly — to blame for Porcello’s bad season. The truth is he’s earned much of that high BABIP by allowing contact that is likely to end up in a hit. He’s seen a two-percentage-point jump in line drive rate up to 21 percent (league average is 20 percent) as well as a big eleven-point jump in hard-hit rate to 41 percent (league average is 32 percent). In fact, that hard-hit rate — which comes from Fangraphs’ batted ball data — is the second-highest in baseball among qualified pitchers.
I discussed this issue back in June, wondering why Porcello was giving up a lot of hits. Honestly, it’s not too difficult to see why the righty is allowing so much hard contact. To put it simply, he’s not working the edges of the strike zone nearly as well or as consistently as he did a year ago. There are too many balls being left in the middle of the zone, and it goes without saying that major-league hitters are always going to crush those pitches. This has continued to be an issue all year.
It’s not the only problem plaguing Porcello, though. Or, at least, it’s an issue that’s been exacerbated by his lack of command. The league saw what the 2016 Cy Young winner did, and they came into 2017 with a plan of attack. That plan has worked, and Porcello hasn’t been able to zig while the rest of the league is zagging.
One of the big reasons he was so successful last year was that he limited walks better than any other pitcher in the league. When you don’t let batters reach for free, you’re bound to have plenty of success. That’s Baseball 101. There are different ways to limit walks, but the easier strategy is to simply pound the strike zone. That’s what Porcello did. He’s always been someone to throw a lot of strikes, but he took it to a new level last year with a zone rate over 52 percent (per Baseball Prospectus) for the first time in his career. He’s maintained a similar rate this year, and batters aren’t surprised anymore. Opponents are now swinging 50 percent of the time against him, the fourth-highest rate among the 100 pitchers with at least 1500 pitches this year. It’s easily a career-high, and a three-point jump from last year. Furthermore, the entirety of that jump has come on pitches in the zone.
After batters swung at pitches in the zone 63 percent of the time in 2016, they have upped that rate to 68 percent in 2017. That ranks fifth among those same 100 pitchers mentioned above. Now, on its own this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Right behind Porcello on this leaderboard is Clayton Kershaw, who is pretty decent at this whole pitching thing. There are two issues that make this a major problem for Porcello, though. For one, the pitchers around Porcello on this list don’t hit the zone as often, so there’s simply a lower number of times batters are making these swings. Secondly, he doesn’t have the kind of stuff to succeed against this many swings. Someone like Kershaw can get by because, even when he hits the zone, he can get batters to swing through it. Porcello cannot.
In the end, this is really a combination between his lack of command and batters being more aggressive. If he were consistently working the edges of the zone, he’d have much better luck even if batters were swinging more often. That being said, it’s time for a counter-adjustment. There’s easily a chance this could backfire, but it could be time for Porcello to sacrifice some walks in hopes it leads to a little more weak contact. Assuming batters are going up to the plate expecting to swing the bat — and the data suggests that’s what’s happening — he needs to use that against him. There’s surely no guarantee this will work, but if Porcello is going to be the guy to step up behind Sale and Pomeranz, something needs to change.