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2019 in Review: Rick Porcello

A look back at a brutal year for the Red Sox righty

New York Yankees v Boston Red Sox Photo by Omar Rawlings/Getty Images

Welcome to our 2019 Red Sox in Review series. This is, as you can probably guess, where we will be reviewing all of the players who made at least a modest impact on the Red Sox in 2019. Every week day we’ll be deep diving into one player every day. For each edition we’ll describe the season in a sentence, look at the positives from the year as well as negatives, look back at our one big question from the season preview and look ahead to the 2020 season. We’ll be going in alphabetical order of the players on this list. You can look over that list, too, and drop a name in the comments if you think I left anyone out who should be mentioned here. Got it? Good. Today we focus on Rick Porcello.

2019 in one sentence

Rick Porcello had the worst season of his career at a most inopportune time, both for him and for his team.

The Positives

There really weren’t very many positives for Rick Porcello in 2019, which is a pretty obvious statement of fact for anyone who had watched the Red Sox this past year. If we want to look at some positive trends or moments, it is necessary to dig a little bit deeper. For example, there was a stretch that made up about a third of his season where Porcello was very good.

Over 11 starts from late-April to mid-June he tossed 70 23 innings (about 6 13 innings per start) while pitching to a 3.31 ERA with opponents putting up a modest .618 OPS. Perhaps most amazingly given his season as a whole, he allowed only eight homers over that stretch. In fact, among the 123 pitchers who threw at least 35 innings in that stretch, Porcello’s .261 wOBA that he allowed was tied for 17th in all of baseball, just ahead of guys like Jacob deGrom, Stephen Strasburg, Jack Flaherty and José Berríos. It should also be mentioned that this was a stretch where the Red Sox looked like they could recover from their horrible start.

Porcello was also generally very good when he was pitching from the windup. Granted, this is all relative but he was much better with the bases empty. In those situations opponents hit just .275/.304/.453 for a .317 wOBA. For context, the league-average wOBA this year was .320. It’s also worth pointing out that Porcello has been better in these situations fairly consistently over his career.

If you really want to stretch, you can also just say he made 32 starts in 2019. This has always been one of the selling points for Porcello’s value in a rotation, as durability is hard to come by at this position. The Red Sox certainly found that out the hard way this past year. Now, the righty didn’t pair those starts with the big innings totals we’ve gotten used to over the years because he just couldn’t make it deep into games. I would probably argue that the value of getting so many starts goes down significantly when they come from a guy having the type of season Porcello had, too. On a better roster, he’s probably relegated to the bullpen at some point in the second half. Still, he made 32 starts, and no one can take that away from him.

The Negatives

There’s probably not a better place to start this one than just looking at the raw numbers. They are....not good. Porcello finished the year with a 5.52 ERA, a 4.76 FIP and a 6.06 DRA. Now, obviously the run environment around the league was wacky this year so all pitching numbers look a little worse than they really are, but there’s a lot of room between “a little worse” and where Porcello finished 2019. Even after adjusting for park effects he was safely below-average in all of those metrics.

Looking at more specifics, I think the tale of Porcello’s 2019 failures has to start with his control. Obviously we are talking about a guy who has had some rough years in his past, but even in those seasons he’s basically always been a guy who hits the zone and doesn’t put batters on for free. A lack of control in the first half kind of set the tone for his year, though. He did get better as the year went on, but he walked seven percent of his opponents in the first half after generally walking around five percent throughout his career. Porcello just doesn’t have the stuff to get away with free passes.

Coupling with that, he unsurprisingly struggled with the long ball as well. This has been an issue for Porcello throughout his career, of course, and with the juiced ball it would have been legitimately shocking if he had seen a reversal of fortune. Still, he allowed 31 homers in 2019 and you just can’t do that as a major-league pitcher, particularly not for a hopeful contender whose rotation was decimated by injury. According to FanGraphs, Porcello induced ground balls at the lowest rate of his career while allowing his second-highest hard-hit rate ever. That is not an ideal combination.

Homers are always a big talking with Porcello, as is the way he uses his pitches. It’s well known at this point that the righty has moved away from his sinker since coming from the Tigers, but finding the perfect balance between that and his four-seam has been a key to his success throughout his Red Sox career. This year, he leaned too heavily on the four-seamer and it bit him time and again. After throwing his sinker about 30 percent of the time and his four-seamer at about a 20 percent rate in 2018, those rates were at about 25 percent and 31 percent, respectively, in 2019. To make matters worse, his slider was arguably his best pitch in both seasons and that usage fell from 24 percent to 19 percent.

Finally, Porcello had a tendency to let bad situations build upon themselves in 2019. As I said above, he was solid with the bases empty but once the other team started building a rally things began to crater. In fact, he actually gave up more homers this year with runners on base than he did with the bases empty. That is extremely rare since pitchers always have more chances with the bases empty than with runners on. Porcello also walked batters at a significantly higher rate with runners on and was worse in just about every area as leverage got higher as well.

The Big Question

Can Rick Porcello find the adjustment to get his home run rate back down?

He could not.

2020 Vision

I mentioned at the very top that this was bad timing for the team and also for Porcello himself, and that’s because he is currently on the free agent market. If he had even an average season with his normal workload, he was certainly looking at a solid multi-year deal even in this depressed free agent market. Now, he is almost certainly looking at a lower, one-year pillow deal to try and build his value back up for next winter. With the Red Sox needing at least one starter, a reunion is certainly on the table. Personally, I think everyone would be better off if they went their separate ways, but there is a very fair argument that he should be signing if we accept the team’s payroll decisions.