The starting rotation for the 2019 Boston Red Sox has been rough. That goes for just about everyone, but no starter has been as responsible for Boston’s struggles as Rick Porcello. While other starters who have been used less liberally have had their own issues, Porcello is the only starter on the roster who has logged at least 100 innings with an ERA+ below 100.
After this season, the Red Sox will have a decision to make about Porcello since the right-hander will be a free agent. Based on how he has pitched this year, that decision seems like a rather easy one, but before we start getting ready to say goodbye, let’s take a look at both sides of the equation.
The case for re-signing Porcello
Porcello has been a league average pitcher overall during his time with the Red Sox and is just a year removed from posting a 103 ERA+. This season, he hasn’t been as valuable as in year’s past but he has still been worth 1.2 wins according to FanGraphs. The Red Sox have seen first-hand what its like to be without reliable starting pitching, even of the mediocre variety. That’s why the last month or so has been littered with bullpen games.
With Porcello, the Red Sox have had a reliable starter to turn to every five days because of durability. He has logged at least 150 innings in each of his five seasons in Boston, including two campaigns with more than 200 innings. It’s possible that Porcello can’t keep that pace up as he gets older but he will be entering his age-31 season in 2020. That’s far from ancient. For context, Porcello is just a year older than Nathan Eovaldi, who was given a multi-year contract last offseason.
Of course, Eovaldi earned that contract by pitching like a Cy Young candidate in the postseason. Porcello has been more than just a candidate for that award with his 2016 campaign ending with the hardware. Even if you don’t think he should have won it that year, he was still one of the best pitchers in baseball. It would be folly to set that as his current ceiling, especially as he continues his journey into his 30s, but if he can even recapture some of that magic, he would be worth bringing back.
Admittedly, there has been very little evidence this season to suggest that Porcello can get back to being an above average or even average starter. That doesn’t mean there has been no evidence, however. Porcello has tallied 11 starts of at least six innings while allowing three earned runs or fewer. He was especially solid in May and and to a lesser degree in August with ERAs of 3.34 and 4.00 in those months, respectively. That’s not the highest of bars to set, but those numbers equate to serviceable outings that can put the Red Sox in a position win, especially with how well they swing the bats.
Looking a bit deeper, you might be surprised to learn that Porcello is causing batters to produce soft contact at the highest rate of his Red Sox career this season and let’s remember that he is just a year removed from posting an xFIP of 3.87. Again, these are not top of the rotation numbers, but if the Red Sox brought him back, they wouldn’t be asking him to fill that role. They’d just want him to be a solid starter every time he stepped on the mound. He hasn’t been such a starter enough this season, but his ZiPS projections for the next two seasons have him pegged to post FIPs of 4.29 and 4.33, according to FanGraphs. Unless they plan on making drastic changes to their rotation, the Red Sox could probably use a pitcher of that caliber to fill out the back of the rotation.
The case against re-signing Porcello
The 2019 season has easily been the worst of Porcello’s Red Sox career. Prior to play on Thursday, he had allowed the most earned runs in the league (102) and with just four more allowed, he would set a career-high. When you add in a career-low 82 ERA+, an ERA of 5.83 and a FIP of 5.04, its clear that Porcello has been drastically below league average as a starter.
A major issue has been a drop in the effectiveness of his offerings. Porcello’s fastball has still been acceptable but his secondary stuff has been less than inspiring. That is a major reason that he has the lowest strikeout rate of his Red Sox career (17.5 percent). In fact, this would be the first time since he came to Boston that his strikeout rate has fallen below 20 percent for an entire season. Compounding the less frequent strikeouts has been elevated walk and home run rates. If you were to put together a recipe for how to struggle as a pitcher, those are the key ingredients.
As bad as he’s been this year, it has only been a single season. However, even if we were to throw out 2019, the numbers still aren’t especially kind to Porcello. Sure, he has been a slightly above average pitcher for the Red Sox during his time in Boston, but that is largely propped up by the 2016 season when he had an ERA+ of 142. His marks in every other season are 87, 98, 103 and 82. If we include his days in Detroit, he has had an ERA+ below 100 in seven of his 11 seasons, including this year. Even though Porcello could still have something left tank as he enters his age-31 season, its difficult to believe that he will get better especially with so many miles already on his arm. For him to be worth re-signing, even as a back-end starter, he would have to improve on what he’s done this season and that might be a tough thing to expect.
The decision of whether to re-sign Procello ultimately comes down to what he is looking for in free agency. On a cheap deal, he could be a back of the rotation starter and provide depth for a Red Sox team that may need as much as it can get in the starting rotation. After this season, its hard to imagine that the market for Porcello will be particularly fierce, so the Sox won’t have to worry about getting into a bidding war.
However, the right-hander presents very little in terms of his ceiling and we’ve seen what his floor looks like. Even if the Red Sox have struggled to cobble together a consistent rotation this season, its not as if Porcello will be the only available player who could fill in the back of the rotation. Plus, the Red Sox might want to conserve funds to extend or re-sign other players already on the roster or make bigger splashes in free agency.
With the front office currently in flux, it’s difficult to project exactly what will happen in terms of player personnel this winter. When it comes to Porcello, it may be worth bringing him back if the price is right but it probably makes more sense to move on and try to find rotation help elsewhere on the market or from inside the organization itself.