Has Anything Actually Changed with Rick Porcello?

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Red Sox pitcher Rick Porcello is not having nearly the same level of success he did a season ago.

In 2016, Porcello went 22-4 with a 3.15 ERA en route to his first career Cy Young Award. The hardware likely should have gone to the Tigers’ Justin Verlander, the Indians’ Corey Kluber, or (my personal choice) the Orioles’ Zach Britton, but that’s a different subject for a different time. The reason why Porcello won the award was simple: he led the league in wins a season ago and was near the top of the league in most of the major statistical pitching categories. It goes to show you that the win is still very powerful in baseball circles, even when a pitcher getting one is heavily influenced by the run support he gets from his offense (more on that later). But despite the fact that he received an award he probably didn’t deserve, Porcello had an excellent 2016 and would look to build off that for this season.

It hasn’t quite worked out that way.

This year, the year after he led baseball in wins, Porcello, in an ironic and tragic twist of fate, is leading the league in losses. Even with last night’s victory over the Tampa Bay Rays, he has a 6-14 record with a 4.63 ERA so far in 2017. This is seemingly a far cry from last year’s campaign, and the shift in fortunes has been so dramatic, in fact, that he could become the eighth pitcher in MLB history to lose 20 games in a season after winning 20 the year before. This should go to show you that not all statistics are interesting, useful, or important.

But aside from the obvious depreciation of his production from last year to this one, what has actually changed in Porcello’s performance from 2016 to 2017?

For starters, if you believe in the three true outcomes (walk, strikeout, home run) then Porcello’s numbers provide an interesting look at his recent struggles. For instance, his strikeout rate is the highest it’s been in his entire career (8.25 per nine innings). This is in part because baseball’s hitters are striking out more than they ever have; Porcello’s strikeout rate is also the highest in his career. The troubling thing is that his home run rate per nine innings is also a career high (1.66). He’s allowed at least one home run in a whopping 17 of his 24 starts this season; last year, he allowed at least one home run in 17 of his 33 starts. He’s even already allowed more home runs this season (28) than he did last year (23). And yes, there’s still seven-and-a-half weeks of baseball yet to be played.

As for his walk rate, the change from 2016 to 2017 has been significant, if not necessarily as pronounced. Porcello is walking an average of .49 more batters per nine innings. While that may not seem like a big deal, Porcello is just two walks away from reaching his 2016 total. That’s concerning, as well.

But there’s also another important thing to address in this discussion that has nothing to do with the pitcher: run support.

Last season, Porcello led Major League Baseball in run support per nine innings (7.63). The man who was second in run support last season, the Blue Jays’ J.A. Happ, also won 20 games. If you think these two events are coincidental, you’re fooling yourself. In Porcello’s 33 starts last year, the Boston Red Sox scored 189 runs, or 5.72 per start; no wonder he won 22 games. In the other 139 games the team played in 2016, Boston’s offense averaged 5.34 runs per game. While the Sox had the best offense in baseball a season ago, they were even more fearsome with Porcello on the hill. While those two things have nothing to do with each other, it does help to explain how the owner of a career 4.24 ERA now has both a 22-win season and a Cy Young Award to his name.

Sure enough, Porcello’s run support luck has run dry in 2017 and I’m sure you could’ve seen that coming from miles away. Out of 70 qualified starting pitchers, the Red Sox hurler ranks eighth-to-last in the league in run support, as Boston’s offense has scored all of 3.92 runs per nine innings in each of his starts. In 24 starts this year, the Red Sox have scored a total of 66 runs; that works out to 2.75 per outing. To make matters even weirder than they already are, the Red Sox have scored 5.3 runs per night in the games Porcello hasn’t pitched this season. So on average, Porcello is losing three full runs of support from his offense. And while everyone is shocked over his supposed demise, it turns out that his struggles have at least as much to do with his offense as they do with the man himself.

SIERA (Skill-Interactive ERA) is a statistic that attempts to measure how well someone is actually pitching over a period of time. It is measured the same way regular ERA is. And, just like most other statistics, SIERA says that Porcello’s 2016 campaign wasn’t quite Cy Young-worthy and his 2017 season isn’t as bad as some are making it seem. As a matter of fact, his 2016 SIERA was 3.78, a full .63 points higher than his actual 2016 ERA. This year, his SIERA is 4.09, .54 points lower than his real ERA. SIERA says that the difference from last year to this one is .31 runs per nine innings. However, his real ERA has increased by 1.48 runs per nine innings. The difference is staggering, and the truth is that Porcello’s real talent is somewhere in the middle between last year and this one.

Of course, this is to say nothing of the fact that Porcello simply isn’t having as good a year as he did last year. His ERA, his FIP (fielding-independent ERA), home run rate, and walk rate are all up from last year. Significantly, though, his run support is dramatically lower and his advanced metrics show that he isn’t faring that much worse than he did last year.

Porcello’s story also goes to show you just how powerful wins and losses still are in modern baseball. Even though a “win” or a “loss” is handed out largely based on how a pitcher’s offense supports him, we still view a pitcher’s record, for some reason, as a major indicator of his success or failure as a player. If you don’t believe me, 32 of the 34 Cy Young Award winners in this millennium won at least 15 games the year they won the award. The two exceptions were the Mariners’ Felix Hernandez in 2010 (13-12) and the 2003 NL winner, Dodgers closer Eric Gagne. While we can dispel of the notion that a pitcher’s record means something (#KillTheWin), wins and losses still hold a rather shocking amount of power in the baseball world.

Wins and losses are the reason we expected Rick Porcello to do better this season. Wins and losses put him on a faux pedestal as one of the best pitchers in baseball, and we shouldn’t be so flabbergasted that he hasn’t lived up to that billing this season. The Cy Young Award recognition probably didn’t help him out in this regard, either.

Many are searching for the answers for why Rick Porcello has disappointed in 2017. But if you look a little deeper, you’ll find that the high expectations for his performance were even more highly unjustified.

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