Rick Porcello was less than a year out of high school and one of the youngest players in the Single A Florida State League, but he was ready to charge out of the dugout and punch somebody in the mouth. One of the Tampa Yankees had bunted to break up a no-hitter with two outs in the sixth inning and Porcello, who was charting pitches at the time, was irate.
Never mind that only a few hundred people were in the stands during that early-season game in 2008, Porcello wanted vengeance.
“He was popping off and I told him to settle down,” said Andy Barkett, Porcello’s manager at the time. “It was kind of a borderline thing in my mind, nothing to get too upset about. For a kid just getting his feet wet in pro ball, he was fired up.”
Barkett was convinced the incident had been forgotten right up until the second inning of the next game when Porcello drilled the offending player in the ribs with a fastball.
Seven years later, Porcello laughs at the memory. But he doesn’t apologize.
“For me, it was important to let my teammates know I was there for them and hopefully they’d be there for me,” he said. “I was a first-round draft pick and getting paid a lot of money. Being a bonus baby, people are envious of your position.
“Plus, I thought it was BS the guy bunted in a no-hitter. I still do.”
That attitude, one born of cold March practice sessions on parking lots in New Jersey, could help make Porcello the ace of the Red Sox this season. Of all the moves the Sox made this winter to change the look of a last-place team, obtaining Porcello from the Detroit Tigers in December may be the most important.
Only 26, Porcello already has played six full seasons in the majors and appeared in eight postseason games. But the righthander is convinced the best part of his career is still on the horizon after remaking his approach on the mound over the last two seasons.
That it could come with the Red Sox makes sense to him. Sam Dente, Porcello’s grandfather, played for the Sox in 1947.
Dente batted eighth in his major league debut, part of a lineup that included Dom DiMaggio, Johnny Pesky, Bobby Doerr, and Ted Williams. The rookie had two hits and drove in a run that day, surely earning the approval of the Splendid Splinter.
Dente died in 2002 when Porcello was in middle school.
“We didn’t have a close relationship with him. But I took pride in knowing that part of my bloodline played in the big leagues,” Porcello said. “It was cool knowing that. My brothers and I, baseball has always been our sport, and I think him playing in the big leagues had a lot to do with that.”
Older brother Zach was a pitcher good enough to play in college, and when it came time for Rick to play in high school, he chose Seton Hall Prep instead of his local public high school because of its baseball program.
His parents, Fred and Pat, helped influence the decision. They knew their middle son could handle the best competition.
“Originally, I wanted to stay with my friends. But I went to watch [Seton Hall Prep] play when I was in eighth grade and saw how the whole team carried themselves,” Porcello said. “That’s when I knew it was something I wanted to be a part of. It was a great place to play.”
Confident and yet humble
Mike Sheppard Jr., Seton Hall Prep’s coach since 1986, is New Jersey baseball royalty. His father, Mike Sr., coached Seton Hall University for 31 years and won 998 games, developing players such as Craig Biggio, Mo Vaughn, and John Valentin.
Rob Sheppard replaced his father as coach of Seton Hall University. A brother-in-law, Ed Blankmeyer, is the longtime coach at St. John’s.
“Coach Sheppard, he runs his high school team like a college program,” Porcello said of Mike Sheppard Jr. “That was where my baseball career really started. That was where I developed and grew into a man.”
Said Sheppard: “Rick was a special kid. We’ve had a lot of players with great baseball ability but what separated him was his makeup. He was extremely confident but also humble. It was quite evident after a few years that he wasn’t going to college.”
By his senior year in 2007, Porcello was drawing comparisons to Josh Beckett, the second pick of the 1999 draft. Porcello was 10-0 with a 1.18 ERA that season and sure to be a first-round draft pick. His fallback plan was a scholarship to the University of North Carolina, where his roommate would be Matt Harvey.
In the days leading up to the draft, Porcello shocked even his hard-driving coach with his willingness to put team goals ahead of personal ones.
“We had a state tournament game at our field, the top two teams in the state, and Rick is at the plate. He hits a grounder into the hole at short and beat it out, sliding headfirst into the base,” Sheppard said. “I couldn’t believe it. His sacrificing his future, there are millions at stake. I asked him what he was doing and he said, ‘Coach, I’m trying to win a state championship.’ That’s the kind of competitor he is.”
Scouts loved Porcello but general managers were wary. High school pitchers, even the best ones, are a risk, and Porcello had the implacable Scott Boras representing him. Porcello’s financial expectations dropped him to 27th in the draft, a stunning slide. Still, the Tigers gave Porcello a four-year, $7.28 million major league contract that included a $3.5 million bonus.
Porcello spent one season in the minors, pitching 24 games in Single A before making the Tigers out of spring training in 2009.
“I was amazed he got there so quickly,” said former Red Sox pitcher Anthony Ranaudo, who grew up in New Jersey and was in the high school Class of 2007. “I got drafted out of high school but I knew I needed to go to college and mature and learn more about the game. But Rick, he just kept going. We had all heard how good he was, but to me that proved it.”
Porcello won 14 games as a 20-year-old rookie and more success followed. In 2011, he became the youngest Tiger to start a postseason game. Porcello lived the dream he pursued in high school even if rotation mates Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer drew more attention.
Along the way, restlessness set in. Porcello wanted more than being a back-end starter. Talent was getting him only so far.
“A lot of factors went into that,” he said. “When I got to the big leagues I had basically had one pitch, a sinker, with a halfway decent changeup. The league figured that out and I hit a wall. I was struggling and had to figure out who I was as a pitcher and how I was going to be successful.
“I was fortunate to get to the big leagues at a young age. But it was a challenge trying to learn at that level.”
With the not-always-subtle encouragement of manager Jim Leyland and the help of pitching coach Jeff Jones, Porcello worked on becoming a more complete pitcher. He developed confidence in his four-seam fastball and regained the feel of his curveball.
“He was a one-pitch pitcher and spent so little time in the minors that he never had a chance to develop more,” said Jones, who was Detroit’s bullpen coach when Porcello broke into the majors, then became pitching coach in 2011. “He competed and he won a bunch of games for us. But he became too predictable.
“Last year especially, he learned how to work out of jams. He has four quality pitches now and has come a long way.”
Batters looking for a sinking, two-seam fastball had problems catching up to an elevated four-seamer. Porcello wasn’t overpowering — his fastball sits at 91-92 miles per hour — but showed he had weapons beyond inducing ground balls.
Porcello also shifted his offseason habits, working more on his mechanics with Tim Byron, the coach at Old Tappan High in New Jersey and a former minor league pitcher with the Yankees.
“Tim has been huge for me,” Porcello said. “There’s a foundation now and I go into spring training throwing the ball the right way. I just get it when he talks to me.”
Byron, who is Mike Sheppard Jr.’s cousin, appealed to Porcello’s competitive nature to get him to finish pitches with the proper extension or keep his head steady when delivering a curveball.
“He embraced the idea of changing,” Byron said. “Credit to him, he wants to learn. He was established but he wasn’t happy with what he was. You can see the results.”
Opposing hitters have a .710 OPS against Porcello since the start of the 2013 season, a sharp drop from the .769 it was over the first four seasons of his career.
That has led to a similar decline in his earned run average, from 4.59 in 2012 to 3.43 last season. Porcello was 15-13 in 2014 and threw a career-best 204⅔ innings. His three shutouts — the first three of his career — were the most in the American League.
Good fit for Boston
The Red Sox were paying attention.
“We actually felt in ’13, even though his ERA wasn’t as good [as in 2014], that he pitched just as well. The Tigers didn’t have a great defense that year and he was burned a little bit by that,” general manager Ben Cherington said. “We think for two years now he’s been a pretty good starting pitcher. He’s been on our radar.”
The Sox also believe Porcello fits their roster well. Although he is less reliant on his sinker, he maintained a high ground-ball rate and that should translate into more outs given what should be a solid defensive infield, particularly on the right side.
The Tigers also employed the fewest defensive shifts in the league last season, 205, according to Baseball Info Solutions. The Red Sox shifted more than twice as often.
In Christian Vazquez and backup Ryan Hanigan, the Red Sox have two catchers adept at turning borderline pitches into called strikes.
In only 55 games last season, Vazquez showed an uncommon ability to frame pitches, particularly low fastballs. Porcello will benefit from those skills.
“Throwing more first-pitch strikes, getting ahead, is paramount for my success,” said Porcello, who started working out at the Red Sox complex in Fort Myers, Fla., a few days ago. “More than anything else, that is something I’ve really focused on this season. I feel like I’m set up here to do well.”
Sox manager John Farrell sees a pitcher with the best part of his career to come.
“He had a lot of money thrown at him at an early age and the expectations of pitching in the major leagues. He’s been able to handle that,” Farrell said. “To think that he’s 26 years old and is entering his final year before free agency is one of the rarities. He has a lot at stake.”
Those who know Porcello best believe the trade to Boston comes at the right time. His parents, both Yankee fans growing up, might have the toughest adjustment.
“Rick is an East Coast guy. He’s going to love that area and the people will love him. They’re smart fans,” Sheppard said. “I think it’s a perfect situation for him and for the Red Sox, too. They’re going to get his best.”
Said Jones: “I was around him for six years and couldn’t say one bad thing about him. He’s the way you’re supposed to be.”
Farrell has been asked for two months if the Red Sox need an ace after the loss of Jon Lester. His stock answer is all five starters should feel that way when they step on the mound.
Porcello can change that answer.
“I’ve had struggles and I’ve had successes,” he said. “My experiences changed me and it’s for the better. It feels like everything I’ve worked for has me to this point.”