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 wrap up their season in a sentence, look at the positives of their 2018, the negatives, review their One Big Question from the preseason and look ahead to what’s on the table for 2019. Today, we discuss Rick Porcello.
The Season in a Sentence
Rick Porcello had a solid year in the back half of the Red Sox rotation, putting up solid strikeout and walk numbers but still struggling to reign in the long ball.
Overall, although it didn’t always seem like it, Porcello put up a solid enough 2018. He certainly wasn’t the near-ace he was n 2016 when he won the Cy Young, and he’s probably never going to be that guy again. However, he also wasn’t the near-disaster that he was in 2015 and to a lesser extent 2017. By ERA, he wasn’t all that great, to be fair, finishing the year with a 4.28 ERA. That sounds worse than it really was, though. By ERA+ it was actually very slightly better than average. He was even better than that if you look at peripheral metrics, too, posting a 4.04 FIP and a 4.02 DRA. Again, these aren’t ace-like numbers, but Porcello isn’t an ace-like pitcher. He was a league-average arm, and that’s what you want from him.
To expand on that point, Porcello is a league-average arm and he’s one that takes the mound consistently every five days. I think at times durability can be overrated for starting pitchers, and it may have been a bit overrated (including by myself) for Porcello in recent years. When you aren’t a good pitcher, it’s not necessarily a good thing that you keep taking the mound. Obviously it’s dependent on the talent behind you on the depth chart, but in a vacuum more starts from a below-average arm is bad. Anyway, that wasn’t the case for Porcello this year. Once again he stayed on the field all year and made 33 starts for the third consecutive season. Granted, his innings were down a bit, but that was more the result of Alex Cora being more cautious with his players than anything else. This year, Porcello was more than good enough that this kind of durability was a welcome addition to the season.
Then, you get to the postseason and Porcello was sort of an underrated asset for the Red Sox in October. Now, I’m not saying he should be put on the same pedestal as Nathan Eovaldi, but it’s easy to forget now that Porcello was Eovaldi before Eovaldi was Eovaldi. Or, put more simply, he was the guy who was going back and forth between the rotation and the bullpen. In the ALDS against the Yankees he helped stop a major meltdown from the bullpen with two huge outs in the eighth inning before starting and winning Game Five. Then, in the ALCS against Houston, Porcello tossed a dominant scoreless inning in relief in Game One before starting Game Four. To be fair, he wasn’t great in that start. Porcello’s numbers weren’t as eye-popping as Eovaldi’s and many of his heorics came earlier in the run, but the Red Sox don’t make it deep into October without Porcello coming through in a few huge spots over the course of the playoffs.
Looking more at Porcello’s pitching style, what stood out the most this season for the right-handed veteran was that he continued to up his strikeout rate. This has been a steady trend since he joined the Red Sox, and while it helps that strikeouts have been rising around the league over that time too, it’s been a conscience choice for Porcello. This year, he ended the season with just under a strikeout per inning, beating his career-high (set in 2017) by nearly one strikeout per nine innings. What’s most interesting about this is that he wasn’t getting more swinging strikes. In fact, his swinging strike rate actually dropped from 2017 and was only the fourth highest of his career. Instead, Porcello hit the zone even more than he did in 2017 but saw a significant drop on swings in the zone. That obviously leads to a lot of called strikes, and is indicative that we saw a lot of Porcello at his best. That is to say he was throwing pitches with movement that paint the corners. He’ll never have the overpowering stuff to dominate, but when he’s locating he can be every bit as effective, as we saw in 2016.
There was a lot of good to Porcello’s year, but ultimately he was still somewhere from an average-to-a-little-above-average starter in 2018. That means, obviously, there were some issues with his year that took away from all the good. It comes down to one thing, and it’s the same issue that’s been plaguing Porcello for years now. Obviously, I’m talking about home runs. One clear risk that comes from being a pitcher that pounds the strike zone — and that’s exactly what Porcello does — is that you can make more mistakes in the zone. Major-league hitters are going to punish such mistakes. Unfortunately, Porcello learned that the hard way in 2018, and really every year with the Red Sox, and allowed 27 home runs. He’s now allowed at least 20 homers in every season since coming to Boston, though he did at least improve upon 2017 when he allowed a whopping 38 long balls.
The Big Question
Can Rick Porcello strike the right balance?
This has increasingly become the question for Porcello ever since he came to Boston, and it has multiple meanings. As mentioned above, the righty’s strikeout rate has been trending up since he was first traded to the Red Sox, but he’s also been losing points on his ground ball rate. Unsurprisingly, that has correlated with a drop in two-seam fastball usage and an increase in the usage of his four-seamer. In 2016, he seemed to find the perfect balance between his four-seamer and two-seamer as well as with ground balls and fly balls. Then, in 2017, he went too far towards the four-seam/flyball/strikeout end of the spectrum. So, the hope was that he could reign it in in 2018.
Ultimately, the answer to the question was: Sort of? In terms of ground balls, Porcello got back into the average-ish range which is probably where he wants to live. According to Baseball Prospectus, he finished the year with a 45 percent groundball rate. I’d prefer a 47 percent rate for him, but obviously that’s a negligent difference. Interestingly, it didn’t come from an increase in two-seam fastballs. Instead, he decreased the usage on both of his fastballs, leaning much more heavily on his slider while also utilizing his changeup more. His slider in particular impressed me for most of the year, and I’d be interested to see if he could perhaps lean on it even more moving forward. When it works, it gets him swings and misses and ground balls, creating the best of both worlds.
The Year Ahead
The coming season is the final year of the four-year extension Porcello signed with the Red Sox back in 2015. There will be plenty of time for reflecting on the value he brought back during the extension, but for now we look ahead to the final year. In terms of pure performance, it’s tough to know what to expect from him in 2019. The numbers he put up this past year seem like a solid baseline of expectations, but there’s always a wide variance with Porcello. Perhaps his newfound focus on his secondaries will help stabilize his performance. He’ll certainly be hoping so, as he’s one year away from hitting free agency as a 31-year-old, and with a good season in 2019 he can earn himself another good sized contract. For the Red Sox, I suspect he’ll be in the three/four spot in the rotation (depending on what you think about Nathan Eovaldi, assuming he signs), and this will likely be his final year in a Boston uniform.