Pitchers can be ornery. Ask Chris Sale, the man who swashbuckled White Sox uniforms he didn’t want to wear. Ask David Price, who moped and screamed through last season on the ground and in the air. Or ask Rick Porcello, Boston’s occasionally brilliant starter, well, anything.
The Boston Herald’s Chad Jennings spoke to Porcello before his first start of the year, back in March, and tried to understand why the 2016 American Cy Young Award winner had such a troubling 2017, during which he gave up 38 homers, most in the majors. The question Jennings asked isn’t presented, but it’s clear from Porcello’s answer that’s whether or not he was going to use the sinker more this season after shelving it last year. Porcello wasn’t really having it:
“At the end of the day, do you really care?” Porcello said. “It’s about the results, right? I mean, it is for me, too. You can go out there and tell yourself that you’re going to throw sinkers down in the zone, and if it doesn’t work, then it doesn’t work. I’m not saying I’m just going to go out there and just throw sinkers down and live and die by that, but there’s a certain way you have to go about it to keep hitters honest and make everything better.”
As someone who does not pitch a baseball for a living, it’s hard to push back. That Porcello is unwilling to divulge his trade secrets speaks to the secretive-to-paranoid mien of most pitchers, and is understandable, even though we have a treasure trove of data about what he in fact does, whether he chooses to acknowledge it or not. In his oblique way, he continued:
“It’s not just go out there and be stubborn and throw just one pitch that’s the cure-all,” he said. “You have to execute all your pitches. Game plans play off of certain things, and if you can’t command the ball in a certain spot that you’re trying to, regardless of what your game plan is, you’re going to have a tough time. That’s kind of the basis of the sinker.”
Again, he’s right. But given his reluctance to speak publicly about his game plan, I was surprised to hear the Yankees radio broadcasters, of all people, talking about the reasons for his 2017 struggles in an utterly convincing way in the hours before Porcello went out an humiliated the Bronx Bombers in last night’s win.
In the pregame show, John Sterling and Suzyn Waldman -- pretty much the opposite of New England’s sweethearts, but an acquired taste for Sox fans in the NYC area if you’re into Vaudevillian readings of P.C. Richard sponsorships and incompetent home run calls -- spoke about how Porcello allegedly didn’t believe pitching on a “downward plane” would help him against the quote-unquote launch angle revolution, and that he spent 2017 trying to throw his pitches “flat” and getting killed for it.
The question this invited, of course, was “Why would the reigning Cy Young Award winner change his approach?,” combined with everything else I know about the former Tiger, is that Porcello is comically stubborn, and was either dead-set on A) changing his approach based on dubious logic or B) Not telling a reporter the whole truth, or anything close to it.
Because guess what? Porcello is throwing more sinkers this year! A lot more. Last season, Porcello threw sinkers 30.4 percent of the time, per Pitch Info/FanGraphs, a career low. He threw fastballs 29 percent of the time, a career high, and he got killed for it, leading the league in losses and giving up home runs by the bushel. He’s back to business this year, throwing the fastball a near career-low 15.9 percent, the sinker a hefty 44.8 percent and his cutter almost not at all (6.6 percent) and it’s working like a charm.
He didn’t allow a hit until the seventh inning last night against one of the game’s best offenses, continuing a dominating run into 2018 that continues an up-year-, down-year trend going back five seasons. In 2014, he put up a 3.8 WAR (per B-R). In 2015, it was 0.5. In his Cy Young year it was 4.8; last season, it was -0.2. This year, he’s already at 1.1, which, yes, means that by one measure Porcello has not only already been more valuable than he was during the entirety of 2017 -- he was before he pitched a single inning.
For that reason alone, he was due to bounce back from his .324 BABIP and 1.68 HR/9 season either way, and, in true Porcellian fashion, he’s done so quite well while being typically evasive and coy about it. I don’t much care for or about the latter, but it’s hardly important. A good Porcello can snarl and obfuscate all he wants. As long as he’s confusing batters too, we’re all better for it, no more so than today.