PHILADELPHIA – Hard as it is to believe, save for one brief early-career hiccup, Red Sox righthander Rick Porcello would have been a free agent this past winter. The only thing that stood between him and the six years of service needed to reach free agency after the 2014 season was an early-season struggle in 2010 that resulted in one month in the minor leagues.
Otherwise, he would have been a 25-year-old starting pitcher reaching the open market at a nearly unprecedented young age.
There were no shenanigans involved, Porcello recalled. The Tigers were not trying to manipulate his service time to coax an extra year of his services out of his prized right arm. Instead, as a 21-year-old, he was overwhelmed in going 4-7 with a 6.14 ERA through 13 starts.
He needed the breather the minor leagues afforded him to restore order, to fix his delivery, and sharpen his curveball to make him a more competitive pitcher. The trip to Triple A had the intended effect, as he went 6-5 with a 4.00 ERA in 14 starts after being called back up.
That improved performance was one reason why Porcello spent little time dwelling this winter on how he almost faced an unprecedented opportunity to explore the open market.
“Everything happens for a reason. I feel like I’d be wasting my energy thinking about what could have been. I’m very happy and excited about the position I’m in now. If I’d have been a free agent [after 2014], I might not have had the opportunity to come here and play, get traded here,” Porcello said near the end of spring training. “Everything works itself out. The only things I know for sure are what I can do to keep getting better, and that’s working hard. I’m going to do that.
“Everybody knows where you are, how old you are, what your position is, but it’s not something I focus on on a day-to-day basis. I’m trying to win games here, trying to win a championship. Those are the things that are important to me. The other stuff takes care of itself,” he added.
On Monday, his preference to embrace the bird-in-hand became even more clear with his agreement to a four-year, $82.5 million extension with the Sox, a contract that will run from 2016-19, covering Porcello’s age 27-30 seasons. He will pitch on a one-year, $12.5 million deal this year.
The distinctiveness of Porcello’s early career
Porcello’s contract is fascinating for a number of reasons that distinguish it from the prior deals to clear an average annual value of $20 million. A few key markers put Porcello in a position unlike virtually any other $20 million a year pitcher.
First, except for Masahiro Tanaka, who was posted to MLB by his team in Japan prior to his age 25 season, no other $20 million a year pitcher was poised to reach free agency following their age 26 season. Porcello is an outlier not just among Red Sox pitchers but in baseball history for the amount of big league experience he’s accumulated at a young age.
Porcello is one of three pitchers since 1900 to have at least 10 wins in each of his first six seasons before turning 26, joining Hall of Famers Dennis Eckersley and Bert Blyleven. No other pitcher has made 25 or more starts in each of his first six big league seasons before turning 26.
“I was looking at that the other day. That’s a lot of starts. … That’s pretty special,” noted teammate Clay Buchholz. “It just shows you he’s been pretty consistent since he got called up. He’s averaged 185 innings over his first years in the big leagues. That’s really good. One thing that’s going to happen, he’s going to get better. You start learning more about yourself and he works hard, too.”
That experience has put Porcello in a position to flourish. At an age where some starters are just transitioning to the big leagues, the 2007 first-round pick has developed an understanding of who he is as a pitcher and not only how to succeed but how to make the needed adjustments to sustain success.
“I can tell you that I feel very confident in my ability, the development, the different things I’ve gone through over the first six years that I’ve spent in the big leagues,” said Porcello. “I work as hard as I can possibly work and I prepare myself to the best of my ability. I just try to do the best I can to maximize the things I can control. I’ll continue to do that as long as I’m playing this game.”
Porcello was a largely steady, but rarely spectacular, performer in his time with the Tigers. He was overshadowed by Cy Young pitchers like Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer, offering a complementary reliable presence in the rotation rather than a dominant one.
At this stage of his career, Porcello has a 4.30 ERA that is close to the league average over his career. That’s nearly half-a-run higher than any other $20 million-a-year pitcher when he signed his contract – Cliff Lee had a 3.85 career ERA when he signed his five-year, $120 million deal with the Phillies as a free agent.
Porcello’s ERA is in no small part a reflection of the fact that he’s a groundball pitcher who typically had a poor infield defense behind him in Detroit. He posted a career-best 3.43 ERA in 2014, a season when the Tigers decided to reshape their infield with a greater emphasis on defense than in Porcello’s career to that point.
Still, even statistics that attempt to strip defense from the pitching equation suggest Porcello hasn’t performed to the level of the other 15 pitchers to receive multiyear, $20 million-a-year deals. He has a 4.03 career Fielding Independent Pitching mark, which is slightly better than league average for his career and more than a quarter of a run worse than any other $20 million-a-year pitcher. Lee had a 3.77 FIP when he got his deal.
Porcello’s track record, then, is that of a durable, roughly league-average starter, albeit one who has evolved in more recent years into looking capable of more. One evaluator recently suggested that he viewed Porcello as a pitcher who has grown from being a No. 4 to a No. 3 starter.
The Sox believed the contract made sense based on his track record rather than daydreams about what he might become.
“We like the pitcher that Rick is now. We like the pitcher Rick was last year and the year before that. That’s a really good pitcher. That’s why we traded for Rick,” said Sox GM Ben Cherington, who traded outfielder Yoenis Cespedes, reliever Alex Wilson, and minor leaguer Gabe Speier to Detroit for Porcello in December. “What I think the winter and the spring allowed us to do is just to get to know him better. What we see is a driven, incredibly competitive guy, a team-first guy, wants nothing more than to win, does everything he can do to put himself in a position to help the team win. As we got to know him as a person as much as as a pitcher over that course of time, it just motivated us probably even more to try to get something done.”
More dollars, fewer years
Taking age out of the equation, pitchers with Porcello’s performance profile haven’t been rewarded with $20 million-a-year deals. That said, few $20 million-a-year pitchers have passed on free agency for a term as short as the four years to which Porcello agreed.
Most such pitchers have realized deals of five to seven years, and had Porcello gone to the open market, it’s not unreasonable to think he might have likewise realized a deal of similar duration. Reds righthander Homer Bailey landed a six-year, $105 million extension with Cincinnati last spring that covered his age 28-33 seasons. He had a 4.25 career ERA and 4.00 career FIP prior to that deal, marks that align closely with Porcello’s performance to date.
Porcello will receive a higher AAV than Bailey ($20.625 million), but for fewer years. That equation – more dollars, fewer years – represents a formula that the Red Sox espoused as a desired operating model in the winter of 2012-13.
The relative brevity of the extension, coupled with the fact that it covers an age (27-30) where the pitcher represents a decent bet to remain healthy, helps the Sox to insulate themselves from risk. That doesn’t mean that the deal is without risk – Porcello is, after all, a pitcher – but it represents the sort of gamble with which the Sox feel relatively comfortable.
It is worth noting that the deal isn’t too far off from the four-year, $70 million offer the Sox made to Jon Lester one spring earlier. The Sox are wary of overextending, particularly in paying for a pitcher’s decline years. This deal gives them at least a chance of avoiding that.
Several factors likely played into Porcello’s willingness to accept this deal.
■ He’s being paid very, very well, matching John Lackey for the largest guarantee ever conferred upon a Red Sox pitcher and setting a new standard for the highest AAV ever given by the Sox to a pitcher.
■ The free agent class of 2015-16 could be flooded with pitchers such as David Price, Johnny Cueto, Jordan Zimmermann, Jeff Samardzija, and others. That crowd creates a danger of losing a game of contractual musical chairs, much as James Shields’ market appeared to dry up after the new year, resulting in his lower-than-expected four-year, $76 million contract with the Padres. Porcello no longer has to worry about that scenario.
■ He’s positioned to arrive at the open market at age 30 after the 2019 season, an age when he still could be in line for a nine-figure contract (if he doesn’t re-up with the Sox before that) if he performs well.
“If he’s fortunate enough to stay healthy through his mid-30s, he’s going to have two free agent contracts,” Buchholz said late in spring training, prior to Porcello’s extension. “It doesn’t happen like that very often. Mike Trout, a couple other guys, there’s only a select few guys that happens to. You’ve got to be good for that to happen. It speaks highly of him.”
■ Porcello gets to avoid a season spent as an ongoing object of impending free-agent curiosity. Some pitchers can thrive in that fishbowl (see Lester, Jon), but that doesn’t mean that it’s a comfortable existence for either a player or his team.
“For me, the least amount of distraction for our team and myself and the organization, was paramount,” said Porcello. “I think [getting the deal done now] was good timing.”
■ Finally, there is the team. Porcello had a spring to take stock of his new surroundings, to appreciate what he saw as a championship-level commitment. He was eager to be a part of it, not just for a one-and-done 2015 season but beyond.
“Obviously I knew the opportunity in entering free agency, but when I had first got to camp and saw the way from ownership to [Cherington] to the coaching staff and the players that were there, and how everything was run from top to bottom, and the devotion to win a World Series here, I knew that was something I wanted particularly to be a part of,” said Porcello. “It wasn’t a very difficult decision for me at that point to stay here.”
Follow Alex Speier on Twitter at @alexspeier.