The 2017 season has undoubtedly been a disappointing one for Rick Porcello, even with the consideration that most people were expecting some regression after he took home the Cy Young a year ago. At this point in the year, it’s far too late to reverse that fact. No matter how things go over the next few weeks the year on the whole is going to be looked at in a negative light, and it’s totally fair. The Red Sox have survived with this version of Porcello, but they were clearly looking for something more. With all of that being said, the righty has been a little better of late and there are some reasons to be positive as we head into October.
First, let’s take a look at where Porcello’s overall numbers stand, and it may be surprising at how not-terrible that may be. Through his first 31 starts, he has pitched to a 4.46 ERA. That is not ideal, of course, but context is important. Offense has exploded around the league this season, particularly with respect to the long ball. All of that has made this ERA essentially a league-average mark, as he’s currently posting a 101 ERA+, which compares his ERA to the league-average while also taking ballparks into consideration. This same phenomenon takes place with Porcello’s peripherals as well. His 4.49 FIP works out to a 104 FIP- — a slightly below-average mark — and his 5.18 DRA works out to a 109 DRA-. Again, these are not good enough relative to what we expected from Porcello, but it’s worth noting that our instinctive evaluations should take into account the offensive boom around the league.
Perhaps more importantly, the righty is trending in the right direction, at least in some areas. Over the last couple of months, the Red Sox have gotten better production from their 2016 Cy Young winner and they probably feel at least a little better about him heading into the postseason. Now, it hasn’t all been great. Since August first, when he ostensibly turned his corner, he only has a 4.22 ERA. That’s still not all that impressive, and at the end of the day the most important job Porcello has is keeping runs off the board. Still, if we look a little bit deeper there are some reasons to be encouraged.
For one thing, the ERA may not be quite as bad as it looks. The sample since August 1 is only nine starts long, so there is some noise involved. As it turns out, he’s really been hurt by a couple bad starts. He’s allowed more than four runs just two times and more than three runs just three times. In other words, he’s kept the Red Sox in the game in most of his starts. Furthermore, he’s been able to get deep into the game more often than not, tossing at least six frames in five of these nine starts. Again, this may not have been good relative to his expectations, but putting those aside he’s been solid enough.
What’s even more encouraging is that Porcello hasn’t really been giving up as much hard contact for hits during this run. Granted, he’s still been allowing the long ball over the last six weeks, and that’s clearly a problem. However, he’s been killed by simply allowing a ton of hits on balls in play this year, and that’s reversed some lately. He’s not at his 2016 levels, of course, but he’s been much better. After allowing a batting average of balls in play of .332 through the month of July he’s allowed a mark of an easy .300. This isn’t an accident, either, as he’s been allowing much weaker contact over this run. Below is a graph of the hard-hit rate he has allowed in each start, and the dotted line that runs horizontally through the graph represents the league-average. As you can see, there is a spike towards the end and from that point forward Porcello is at or below the league-average. That point is his first start of August.
This isn’t simply the result of small sample size noise and some earlier issues working themselves out just based on the natural order of things. Porcello has been markedly better in a key area to prevent these hits from happening. Below, you will see two zone profiles showing where the righty has thrown his pitches this year. The first is from the start of the year through July, and the second is from the start of August to present day.
The biggest issue for Porcello early in the year, as I wrote about back in the beginning of August when this run just started, was that he was hitting the zone too much. Hitters knew that they were getting strikes and they were super aggressive against him. Since the start of August, he’s not pounding that strike zone nearly as much. Now, it’s not all good. You see a strip of red right down the middle of the zone belt-high, and that’s an issue. That’s why he’s still allowing so many home runs. However, beyond that he is missing around the zone much more lately. That may lead to a few more walks, but we’re seeing that it is also preventing opponents from squaring the ball up on a regular basis.
With Doug Fister starting to struggle mightily, it’s pretty clear that Rick Porcello is going to need to start a postseason game, at least in the scenario where the Red Sox make the ALDS and don’t get swept. The bad news is he hasn’t been nearly as good as most of us had hoped, and even during this recent run he’s still giving up runs. The good news is he’s been better than his numbers would suggest, and he’s making changes to improve his overall performance. If you’re looking for reasons to be confident in Porcello, they are out there, even if they are not as prevalent as we may like.