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Rick Porcello is trending in the wrong direction

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How can he right the ship?

MLB: Boston Red Sox at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

By and large, as we all know, the Red Sox are in a good place. Things have gone almost exactly according to plan two months through the 2018 season, and while the team hasn’t been able to pull away in their division that has more to do with the competition than their own performance. At the end of the day, Boston does have the best record in baseball, and you can’t really do better than that, ya know? They are performing well in just about every facet of the game (except for the damn baserunning), and while you can squint and find flaws on every portion of the roster things are much more good than bad. The offense is putting big run totals on the board seemingly every game, the rotation is at least keeping the team in the game more often than not and the bullpen has been able to hold most leads.

Okay, is that enough positivity? Because, despite all that, I am going to focus on one of the developing negatives because I am both A) a bad person and B) well, A) is probably the only reason. The rotation has been keeping the Red Sox in more games than not, and guys like David Price and even Eduardo Rodriguez are trending in the right direction. That being said, Rick Porcello is heading the other way, and we’re getting to the point that it’s becoming more than just a blip. He and his coaches need to figure out the reasoning and work to turn things back to the right path.

Now, it would be dumb to write this without mentioning that Porcello was one of the biggest reasons the Red Sox got off to that absurd start in April. He appeared to be every bit as good, if not better, than his 2016 self that wound up taking home the Cy Young award. It was exciting! It was also good enough that his overall numbers still look good-to-very-good, depending on your metric of choice. Through his first 11 starts of the season, Porcello has pitched to a 3.74 ERA that doesn’t sound great but is still 19 percent better than average, per ERA+. He’s also the owner of an impressive 2.91 FIP and 3.26 DRA (26 percent better than average). So, he hasn’t completely derailed or anything like that.

MLB: Boston Red Sox at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

However, he has looked markedly worse over his last four starts. One could push that back even further all the way back to his last two starts from April, but that transformation was more from going otherworldly to merely good. In those April starts in question he allowed three runs in each but also managed to go at least seven innings. The Red Sox will take that every time. In his last four outings, however, he’s allowed at least five runs in three of them and hasn’t thrown more than six innings. That last part is notable for an innings-eater like Porcello. Overall he has pitched to an ugly 7.29 ERA over this stretch while allowing a .947 OPS.

Now, if you take any random pitcher and look at his worst four-start stretch from any given season, it’s almost certainly going to be ugly. This shouldn’t be who Porcello is the rest of the year, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t look at the trends and try to fix them. The thing that really stands out the most here is the righty’s control. Even in his worst seasons, Porcello has always been able to limit his walks to an impressive degree. It’s important to not allow free runners, particularly when you have home run tendencies like Porcello. After walking only five batters in his first seven starts, the righty has walked eight in this four-start stretch, including two outings with at least three free passes. It’s really unlike him, and the biggest sign that something is going on here.

It’s not just the walks, either, even if that is the most jarring thing you see when you take a gander at Porcello’s game logs. He’s also getting hit a ton, allowing 31 hits over these four starts compared to 33 over his first seven. As has become commonplace with Porcello, the first place to look is at his repertoire, and specifically his fastball usage. The righty features both four-seam and two-seam fastballs, and it seems when he’s going at his best he uses the latter more often. However, he gets into periods where he can’t resist going four-seam-heavy, trying to induce more strikeouts.

Unsurprisingly, that’s happening here. Over his first seven starts, he was throwing his four-seam just 14 percent of the time compared to a 34 percent usage rate on the two-seamer. Through his last four starts, however, the rates have changed to 19 and 29 percent, respectively. That doesn’t seem like a massive shift, but it is indeed noticeable. It’s not just the fastballs, either. Porcello has also started throwing a lot more of his slow curveballs while relying less on his sharper slider. The curveball can certainly be effective, but it also leads to fewer swings, and thus fewer strikes.

Along with some relatively subtle but important repertoire shifts, Porcello is also approaching hitters differently. In fact, this probably goes hand-in-hand with those repertoire changes. In fact, take a look at where he is throwing his pitches now compared to where he was in his first seven starts.

It’s not all that hard to see the differences here. For one thing, he is working in the upper half of the plot much more often of late, which is a side effect of turning to the four-seamer more often. Porcello has had plenty of success finishing off batters with the high fastball, but when it’s used as more than just a putaway pitch he gets into trouble with hard contact. He’s also not hitting the glove-side of the plate (which also happens to be the outside corner to righties) as often. I’m not sure if that’s by design or not — his slider would break in that direction, so it makes some sense — but it leads to the same issues as the high fastball. If he misses trying to go to the inner half to a righty, he’s more likely to put one right in his opponent’s wheelhouse, particularly with an inherently flat pitch like the four-seam fastball.

Porcello is going to be taking the mound tonight (Tuesday) against a Blue Jays lineup that he struck out nine times in seven innings, but also walked three times back in April. This will be a good test to see if he can get back to what made him so impressive through the majority of his first month of the year. If he’s throwing sinkers and slider and keeping the ball on the lower and/or glove-side portions of the zone, then we should see the good version of Porcello again. If he’s trying to get too much done with the four-seamer, it seems likely we’ll be in for another night full of baserunners, and left wondering if that first month was a mirage.