Well, the Red Sox couldn’t go on winning forever. It’s incredibly hard to win any given baseball game, and even more difficult for teams to string long streaks together. We should be more than ecstatic that, at a time when there was a lot of panicking about the state of this team, the Sox pulled off their longest win streak of the season, ending at 6 after today’s 5-0 loss to the Mariners.
This win streak was full of great moments, including giving us this great gif of NESN sideline reporter Guerin Austin getting blindsided by an ice bath. Plus the Sox moved past the sliding Orioles for sole possession of second place, so I'd call this a pretty great week.
Putting the blame for today's loss on starter, Rick Porcello, is not fair. Rick went 6.1 and was only responsible for 2 runs on a day where the offense and the bullpen let the team down in much more significant ways. Four double plays in four innings? C’mon guys.
However, Pretty Ricky was not very sharp today, giving up 11 hits, his season high tied twice already against (last week against Texas and earlier against Detroit). If you haven’t seen Porcello pitch yet in 2017, you might be surprised to hear that he’s pitching so poorly relative to how excellent he was last season. He’s gone from the de facto ace of the team to the number 3 starter (and perhaps the #4 if Price returns to pre-injury David Price this season), and that had me asking myself what is going on?
As with everything in baseball, we can look at the numbers to get to some kind of answer. And I’ll warn you now, there are going to be a lot of numbers coming at you. But bear with me and we’ll have our answer to Porcello's early season struggles.
I’ll start by laying out exactly how well he was pitching last season. Acquired from the Tigers in 2014 by previous GM Ben Cherington, it was expected that Porcello and his career 52.2 ground ball percentage would thrive in Boston. Cherington was so confident in Porcello’s success that he signed the righty to a lofty 4 year, $82.5 million extension the first week of the 2015 season.
His first season in Boston was underwhelming at the least, as he finished the year 9-15 with a 4.92 ERA, a number that may have been slightly inflated by poor defense behind him looking at his 4.12 FIP (fielding independent pitching). He sported a career high 1.31 HR/9, and was inducing ground balls on a career low 45.7% of his pitches. All in all hitters were posting a .332 BABIP (batting average on balls put in play) against him. Not exactly living up to the contract extension he had just signed that season.
Over the offseason it seemed like something had clicked for Porcello. He finished 2016 with a MLB best 22-4 record having pitched to a 3.15 ERA in 223 innings. He was inducing ground balls 43.1% of the time and had a 3.40 FIP. This time his ERA was being slightly inflated by the defenders behind him, the opposite of the previous year. His HR/9 was back in line with his career average at .93, and perhaps the biggest change between ‘15 and ‘16 was his BABIP was all the way down to .269, the lowest of his career. He was the best pitcher in the American League and got the hardware to prove it, taking home the 2016 AL Cy Young award.
All smiles for Porcello last year
Now, there hasn’t been a back to back Cy Young award winner in the American League since 2000 when Pedro Martínez won in 1999 and 2000, so it would have been foolish to not expect Porcello to regress from his career best season. However, the level of regression this season has been much more severe than anyone should have been expecting.
Through a quarter of the season, there is nothing spectacular about Porcello’s numbers. He sports a 3-6 record, has a 4.21 ERA, and is only inducing ground balls on 39.4% of his pitches. His FIP is 3.73, so his defense isn’t quite as solid as it was last year. His walk rate and his home run rate are up, but so are his strikeouts per 9. He’s having a bit of a weird season.
The easiest conclusion to make here is to look at the jump in his BABIP. BABIP is a stat that inherently has a lot of luck attached to it; sometimes balls get caught, sometimes they fall in for bloop hits. The league average for pitchers usually sits around .300, and for someone with a career BABIP of .307, we should expect this number to regress back towards his career average over the course of the season. So are his struggles as simple as looking at his BABIP and just saying hitters are getting luckier this year?
That’s not a question with an easy answer. Looking at his FIP, he’s pitching better than the rest of his peripherals would lead you to believe, so I’m willing to chalk a bit of this up to luck. He’s also performing worse than all of his professional projections this season, with the majority of his projections expecting his BABIP to end up around .312.
His pitch usage and velocity are fairly in line with how he was pitching in his first 11 games last season. He's using his cutter slightly more this season, and he's not getting the same movement he was a year ago on his changeup. Perhaps that explains his league leading 72 hits allowed. That being said, though 11 games last season he had given up 62 hits. He’s averaging just under 1 more hit per game than last season, so that’s not nearly significant enough to explain all his other peripheral changes.
There’s still a lot of season left, and I fully expect Porcello to settle down and return to the mean. He’s not going to churn out another Cy Young winning season at this rate, but with Sale and Rodriguez pitching as well as they have (and David Price making his debut Monday night), the Sox will be perfectly happy with many more 6+, 2ER starts from their number 3 guy this season.
Oh, and on a totally unrelated note, have you seen Heath Hembree this season? He appears to have taken the next step in transforming into the real life Kenny Powers, right down to the dropping F bombs when he gives up home runs. I liked Hembree before, but he may have moved up in my bullpen rankings with that hair/beard combo. Bonus points if he shows up to the park with that goatee cleaned up.
If you don't get that reference, do yourself a favor and watch Eastbound and Down. Kenny Powers might be the second best fictional pitcher ever, right after Ricky "Wild Thing" Vaughn.
Just look at that heater and tell me you don't wish Joe Kelly pitched like this