Welcome to Over the Monster’s One Big Question series. For those unfamiliar, this is something of a season roster preview where over the next 40(ish) (week)days we’ll be taking a look at each player on the 40-man roster prior to the season. If changes are made to the roster between now and Opening Day, we’ll cover the newly added players. Rather than previewing what to expect in a general sense, the goal of this series is to find one overarching question for each player heading into the coming season. We’ll go one-by-one alphabetically straight down the roster, and today we talk about Rick Porcello.
The Question: Can Rick Porcello find the adjustment to get his home run rate back down?
I think, in a way, Rick Porcello can be the most difficult pitcher on the Red Sox roster to discuss. Not because of anything about him or anything particularly complex about his game. Granted, his career since coming to Boston has been filled with extreme peaks and valleys and that makes things a little complicated, but when you take it all together he has been pretty much average and mostly...fine. He was undoubtedly great in 2016 when he won the Cy Young, but that was at least partially cancelled out by a brutal 2015 and rough 2017. I think there is a temptation by many, myself included, to take every discussion about any given player and default towards one extreme or the other. In Porcello’s case it can add a bit of divisiveness between arguing he’s outstanding and others saying he’s awful. The truth is he’s....fine. Since coming to Boston he’s been a workhorse with a slightly above-average ERA+. That’s valuable. It’s not great, it’s not superstardom, but it’s also far from disastrous or being a hinderance to the roster. It’s....fine.
Last season was Porcello’s second best since coming to the Red Sox by a pretty fair margin. He did end the year with only 191 1⁄3 innings after topping 200 in each of the previous two years, but he pitched to a solid 4.28 ERA (102 ERA+) with a 4.04 FIP and a 4.02 DRA, both of which were also solidly better than average after adjusting for park effects. Again, it’s nothing special, but it does the trick in the right role. That being said, it didn’t always feel like it when Porcello is pitching. He can be a frustrating guy to watch on a start-to-start basis, and that largely comes down to the long ball.
For basically his entire career in Boston, home runs have been hanging over Porcello’s head. It’s a bit strange given that he was one of the biggest groundball specialists in the game during his run with the Tigers. He’s changed his style up a bit with the Red Sox, though, and the long balls have started to fly. The righty’s allowed more than a home run per nine innings in three of his four seasons in Boston — the Cy Young campaign in 2016 was the only one where he didn’t reach that mark, instead finishing with 0.9 homers per nine — allowing 1.3 per nine in both 2015 and 2018 and allowing 1.7 per nine in 2017.
To be fair to Porcello, it’s hard to pin the increase now compared to when he was in Detroit all on him. The game has changed dramatically over the last few years and home runs are up all over the place. Consider that last year the average pitcher allowed 1.16 home runs per nine innings compared to 0.86 in 2014, Porcello’s last year in Detroit. That’s a stark difference. Additionally, the 30-year-old’s style can work around allowing some of these home runs. Porcello is a control-based pitcher and does a great job at giving batters bases for free. As a result, a good number of his home runs are of the solo variety (two-thirds of his homers were solo in 2018), and while that’s still not ideal it can be worked around. All that being said, for Porcello to be at his best and get within spitting distance of that 2016 season, he needs to find a way to keep the ball in the yard even a little more often.
As has been the case with the righty for a long time now, the most intrigue with any question comes down to his pitch mix. There has been a lot of ink spilled on this topic over the years, and it largely surrounds his fastball usage. Specifically, the rate at which he uses his four-seam fastball compared to the two-seam, sinking fastball. In Detroit, he was extremely sinker heavy, throwing it as much as 53 percent of the time early in his career. Since coming to Boston, he’s seemingly been focused more on using the four-seamer up in the zone, which can lead to many more strikeouts but also has a better chance to leave the yard if it misses its spot. In 2018, per Brooks Baseball, Porcello still used the sinker more often, but it was only a difference of five percentage points (28 percent vs. 23 percent).
The issue largely comes down to the handedness of the batter at the plate. It won’t come as a surprise that Porcello’s issues have come down to platoon splits for most of his Red Sox career. Porcello has allowed double-digit home runs and at least 1.5 per nine innings to lefties in three of his four seasons here. Against righties, his HR/9 has never gotten above 1.4. His home run rate isn’t great against hitters of either handedness, but it’s a backbreaker against lefties. Looking at how he approaches hitters from the other side of the plate, it’s clear he favors the four-seamer. While he leans much more heavily on his sinker against righties, in each of the last two years he’s overemphasized his four-seamer against lefties. As we discussed above, mistakes with that pitch will leave the yard.
Now, it’s not as simple as saying he needs to just throw sinkers against lefties. I think that would help, but it’s not everything. One big difference overall in 2018 was that Porcello started utilizing his slider much more than he ever had before, and it was effective. That pitch resulted was his second most effective offering in terms of both whiffs and ground balls. That can be a more difficult pitch to use well against lefties since it breaks into the inner half for them, but if it’s located properly and buried off the inner edge down in the zone, it can be lethal.
Then there’s the changeup, which is the biggest key. Porcello has always been able to throw a changeup, but it’s always been more of a middling pitch rather than one he can throw with real confidence. The offspeed pitch is, of course, the one most pitchers use to get by opposite-handed pitching. As such, fans should be excited that Porcello is actively trying to improve his, learning a new grip from Eduardo Rodriguez. The young lefty has a nasty changeup when it’s working, and if Porcello can get more confidence with a new a grip that can totally change the game against lefties.
Chances are, by the end of the year Porcello will have some good outings and some bad outings and end up something around average. As the fourth or fifth starter in the rotation — depending on how you feel about Rodriguez — that is more than fine. That being said, we saw in his Cy Young season that he can be much more than that. The easiest way to get back on that track is to limit the long ball, and the easiest way to do that is to figure out a new plan against lefties. Going with more sliders and laying off the four-seamer a bit would be a good start, but the real game-changer could be the changeup. If the offspeed offering looks to be more deceptive this spring, I may be tempted to drift more toward a positive extreme for Porcello yet again in 2019.