The Rain Delay

Hard-Hitting Baseball Analysis

Rick Porcello: Boston’s Most Important Player

This is an archived post from my prior blog, The Sprained Ankle. It was posted February 19, 2016.

Last season, the Boston Red Sox finished in last place in the AL East for the third time in four years, an utterly unacceptable reality for a team with the financial muscle that Boston can freely flex. The overwhelming majority of the blame for the dismal 2015 season has been justifiably placed on Boston’s prized offseason acquisitions: Hanley Ramirez, Pablo Sandoval and Rick Porcello. The trio combined for a staggeringly awful -2.2 fWAR.

The Great Hanley Ramirez Left Field Experiment of 2015TM was a horror show, with Ramirez turning routine fly balls into adventures with such frequency that yo

u would think he was auditioning for National Treasure 4. In just 105 games, Ramirez accumulated a ghastly -19 Defensive Runs Saved. Making matters worse, Ramirez had by far the worst offensive season of his career, seeing his on-base percentage plummet, along with his power, which completely dissipated after a torrid April at the plate.1  If you want visual evidence of Ramirez’ defensive ineptitude, see the video below.  But I warn you: viewer discretion is strongly advised.

Much to the chagrin of Boston fans, Pablo Sandoval didn’t fare much better in his first year in Boston.  The rotund third baseman’s OPS fell for the 5th consecutive season, tumbling all the way to a lowly .658 in 2015.  He even eschewed switch-hitting for the first time in his career due to his horrendous performance as a right-handed hitter.  Despite his bulbous frame, Sandoval has long been regarded as a plus defender due to his soft hands and quick reflexes.  In 2015, that was far from the case.  Sandoval struggled mightily reacting to balls hit toward his backhand side, seemingly paralyzed like a monolith cemented to the ground.  Even on the rare occasions that Sandoval peered into his glove and locked eyes with those elusive baseballs, he rarely was able to transfer his weight quickly enough to make a timely throw to first base.

While Boston certainly needs production out of Ramirez and Sandoval this year if it hopes to win the American League East, the most crucial of Boston’s three 2015 acquisitions is Rick Porcello.

Porcello inked a lucrative 4 year, $82.5 million extension in early April 2015, which now appears to be such a waste of money that you would think the Red Sox contributed to a Jeb! super PAC.  All jokes aside, Porcello still has a chance to prove he is worthy of such a hefty investment.

In 2015, Rick Porcello lost his identity as a pitcher, finishing the year with a lousy 4.92 ERA.  After establishing himself as one of baseball’s most prolific groundball pitchers, Porcello diverted from the formula that made him successful, throwing more four-seam and cut fastballs and less two-seamers and sliders.  While the change in pitch mix yielded Porcello’s career best 20.2% strikeout rate, it also resulted in Porcello surrendering a career-worst 25 home runs.

Rick Porcello Red Sox pitching

Rick Porcello delivers a pitch. Photo: Keith Allison

“I really started to struggle and got off track with my identity as a pitcher,” Porcello told CSN New England’s Jess Moran upon arriving to Spring Training this year.  “First and foremost, try and keep the ball down and sink it.  And really I stopped doing that. I kind of jumped ship on who I was and found myself struggling even worse.”

But there were signs of optimism for Porcello after August 2nd, when he took a trip to the disabled list.  Using the time off to make adjustments, Porcello returned from the disabled list with a vengeance.  Per Brooks Baseball, in his final eight starts, Porcello threw his sinker and slider 53% of the time compared to just 41% of the time over his previous 20 starts.  In his last eight starts, he also decreased his usage of the four seam and cut fastballs from 35% to 22%.  The altered pitch mix caused Porcello’s ground ball rate to rise with a corresponding drop in his home run rate.  Overall, Porcello posted a sparkling 3.14 ERA over his final eight starts, resembling the pitcher he was in 2014 when he posted a 3.43 ERA over 204.2 innings.

While Rick Porcello will probably never match the 3.14 ERA over the course of a full season (his career-best is 3.43), he proved that he still can be a good pitcher if he just tries to be himself.  And the Red Sox need him to be effective if they have any hope of returning to prominence this season.  With David Price, a bona fide ace, in the fold, Boston has one horse it can count on to produce this season.  But what other pitcher can be relied upon to produce 200 quality innings?

It’s certainly not Clay Buchholz, who has made a trip to the disabled list for six consecutive years.  That guy does not appear to be Joe Kelly, who has yet to parlay his raw arm talent into consistent results, and has never thrown even 135 innings in a season.  Eduardo Rodriguez?  While Rodriguez showed flashes of brilliance last season and demonstrated precocious poise on the mound, he is still unpolished and prone to inconsistency and pitch tipping.

This level of uncertainty in the starting rotation underscores the importance of Rick Porcello to the Red Sox.  Armed with a lethal bullpen, formidable lineup, and stellar outfield defense, the Red Sox are set up to compete in 2016.  But all the bright spots of this roster will go to waste if the Red Sox cannot find a reliable number 2 starter behind David Price.  The Red Sox need Rick Porcello to be this guy.  And he can be.  He just has to be himself.

1: Ramirez’ struggles at the plate after April appear to be caused by an injury.  Ramirez was injured on May 4th against the Rays, banging his left shoulder hard against the unforgiving left field foul wall at Fenway Park. At the time of his injury, Ramirez had 10 home runs and a robust .949 OPS. After the injury, hit just 9 home runs and ended the season with a medicore .717 OPS.

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