Welcome back to the One Big Question series here at Over The Monster. For those who weren’t around for last year’s series or simply forgot what it entails — there’s a lot going on in the world today, so don’t be ashamed! — here’s a brief reminder. Every day, Monday through Friday, for the next eight weeks we’ll profile a new member of Red Sox 40-man roster. Rather than simply going through a simple profile of their overall game and what they offer the team, we’ll focus on the one question that could very well dictate how their season will go in 2018. In order to keep the order objective and avoid side conversations like ranking the players on the roster, we’ll go straight down the roster in alphabetical order by position. In other words, we’ll go by how things are ordered here. If you miss any editions or would like to look back on some of last year’s, you can see all of them here. Today, we’re looking at Rick Porcello.
The Question: Can Rick Porcello find the right balance between strikeouts and ground balls?
To say that Rick Porcello’s Red Sox career has been a roller coaster would be quite the understatement. After the team traded for the righty prior to the 2015 season, he went on to be wildly disappointing and one of the worst regular starters in all of baseball. With expectations now at their lowest, Porcello came back in 2016 and won the damn Cy Young. Sure, it was one of the more underwhelming Cy Young campaigns in recent memory and I probably wouldn’t have voted for him, but he was also outstanding in that season. It wasn’t a case of him just winning a bunch of games, as the narrative has seemingly become. Then, he followed that up with a 2017 that was probably not quite as bad as some have made it out to be, but also not nearly up to par with what many were expecting heading into the season. He has been able to consistently eat innings and there is value in that, but his performance from year to year has been all over the place and this has made him a massive wildcard heading into 2018.
The up-and-down performance for Porcello has clearly been the story of his three-year Red Sox career, but there has been another trend that’s been very interesting to watch even if it’s flown a bit under the radar. I wrote about it early in 2017, but I’ll mention it again. Porcello has slowly and steadily moved away from his groundball tendencies and is becoming an extreme flyball pitcher. According to Baseball Prospectus’ batted ball data, Porcello induced ground balls on just 40 percent of balls in play this past season, easily a career-low and the 14th lowest among the 75 pitchers with at least 150 innings in 2017. One could argue that he took things a bit to far as he allowed a whopping 38 home runs last year with this new style of pitching. Can he find the right balance to strike in 2018?
As we look towards Porcello’s relatively newfound flyball tendencies, it always comes back to his repertoire, and for good reason. The two halves of the righty’s career have sort of been defined by which pitch he is leaning on. When he was getting ground balls but not really missing bats, he was leaning heavily on the two-seam fastball and pitching down and below the zone. Lately, though, he’s worked his four-seam fastball into the mix more and is attacking all areas of the zone and focusing on the upper half with the four-seamer. This has resulted in more strikeouts, but also harder contact. Even just looking at the last two seasons this split stands out. In both 2016 and 2017 he threw either his two-seamer or four-seamer a total of roughly 60 percent of the time. However, in 2016 about two-thirds of those pitches were two-seamers while it was a clean 50/50 split this past year.
This obviously didn’t work out for Porcello, but it’s also not a strategy without its merits. With the way the game is going, it’s not hard to see why he tried to lean more on his four-seam fastball in 2017. For one thing, he clearly wanted to miss more bats, and it worked. His eight strikeouts per nine innings were a career-high. More importantly, the four-seamer — and specifically the attacking of the upper portion of the strike zone that came with the pitch — is the best way to counteract the so-called Flyball Revolution that is taking over the sport. More and more hitters are employing uppercut swings to add more lift to the ball, which means they can better attack the bottom portion of the zone. The easiest way to counteract that strategy is to blow a high fastball by them.
Of course, as sound as the strategy may be in theory, it clearly didn’t work for Porcello. Part of that is because his fastball just isn’t powerful enough for it to be a focal point of his repertoire like this. He’s just not built to succeed by striking guys out, but instead by inducing weak contact. That doesn’t mean he has to get ground balls — he only posted a groundball rate of 44 percent in his Cy Young campaign — but something has to give. Changing the repertoire and leaning more on the two-seamer is certainly one of the adjustments he needs to make, but it’s not the only one.
This is another thing I wrote about last season, but it’s worth touching on again. One of the hallmarks of Porcello’s career has been his strong control, and it was a major reason he was so effective in 2016. He just doesn’t allow free baserunners. However, opponents know that he is going to pound the zone, and they were ready to swing early and often last year. The best hitters are more willing to be aggressive early in counts than they have been in recent years — look at how the Astros succeeded in 2017, for example — and Porcello was a major loser from that new trend. The best-case scenario for the righty is obviously to consistently attack the edges of the strike zone, leading to weak contact and a lack of walks. That’s what he did in 2016, but it’s also much easier said than done. If he doesn’t have that kind of pinpoint command on any given night, he may need to be more willing to allow a walk here and there if hitters continue to jump on strikes early in counts.
Ultimately, I’m not going to sit here and tell you what we should expect from Porcello in 2018. I have no idea which version we’ll see in the upcoming season, and I’m too afraid of being wrong to venture a guess. I will say that a big part of who he is will be whether or not he can strike the right balance of strikeouts (four-seamers) and groundballs (two-seamers), a task that has more or less defined his Red Sox tenure. There are a lot of potential adjustments that can be made, and finding the right one(s) is perhaps the most important task for Boston’s pitching coaches in 2018.