For years, as a member of the Cleveland Indians, Justin Masterson had a chance to watch Rick Porcello pitch for an American League Central foe, the Detroit Tigers.
Masterson can appreciate the career arc of a player who is in a different place than he was in 2009 as a 20-year-old rookie.
What Masterson has witnessed is a pitcher’s coming of age, the latest demonstration of which came Tuesday in Porcello’s most successful start as a Red Sox. The righthander navigated eight singles and tossed seven shutout innings as his team claimed a 2-0 victory over the Rays, halting a four-game losing streak.
It was the sort of performance that suggests Porcello is a pitcher who does not wilt just because his club is experiencing adversity.
Long in the shadows of a Tigers rotation loaded with Cy Young-caliber pitchers, Porcello now looks, acts, and, most importantly, pitches like someone who offers the Sox rotation a stabilizing presence.
“I remember seeing him come up and flip sinkers and sinkers and sinkers, getting hit around a little bit at times, having lots of success at times also. Then really coming into his own as a pitcher as he got older,” Masterson said.
“Really, he’s taking that leadership role in this clubhouse and on this staff, just as far as being a stopper [Tuesday night], going out and doing his thing. ... That’s what you ask for. He works hard, goes about his business, carries himself very well. That’s, again, another sign, I think, of the maturity that continues to grow and grow. He’s 26 years old. He’s only getting smarter, stronger, and becoming a better person.”
At a young age, he has an extraordinary amount of experience. With 186 career starts, Porcello is on the cusp of joining Clayton Kershaw, Felix Hernandez, Matt Cain, and CC Sabathia as the only active pitchers with 200 or more starts by the age of 26.
He’s young enough that his stuff is not yet diminishing, yet wise enough to have figured out how to expand his arsenal and execute in a way that permits him to be a reliable rotation member. The hard-learned lessons of being the youngest starter in the American League for two straight years (2009-10) have now paid off — he understands how to incorporate both his two-seam and four-seam fastballs, a curveball, changeup, and cutter.
“It could be very overwhelming at times at that age. You’re playing against the best players in the world, and I didn’t really have a whole lot of experience. I didn’t have a solid pitch repertoire,” Porcello said this spring.
“The game will expose you when you’re not ready. I definitely experienced those struggles my second and third year. But those struggles, I think, made me stronger mentally.
“The advantage for me was getting that experience at such a young age to put me in a position where I am now, where I’ve learned some things at the big league level that you really have trouble learning anywhere else but here. It was a unique opportunity for me. I was very fortunate to be there.”
With experience, a diverse arsenal, and understanding of how to use it, Porcello has emerged as the Sox’ most consistent starter — without a close second. He has delivered three starts of seven or more innings, tied for the eighth-most such outings in the majors. The other four Sox starters have made it through 21 outs just once each.
Porcello had been vulnerable to home runs through his first four starts, getting taken deep six times. In his last two starts, he’s corrected course, staying out of the middle of the plate while finding what he described as the right balance of two- and four-seam fastballs while also cutting way back on the usage of his cutter after seeing it get hammered in the early stages of the season.
Hitters have a .364 average and .636 slugging mark with two homers when putting Porcello’s cutter in play this year, according to BrooksBaseball.net. In his last 14 innings, he’s given up just one run and no homers while walking two and striking out 12.
The ability to correct course and adapt is at the heart of being a reliable innings contributor. Porcello seems to have arrived at a career stage where he can do that. Last season, he had 15 or more starts of at least seven innings en route to his first career 200-innings pitcher.
This year, despite the early season home run hiccups, he is once again providing innings while attacking the strike zone. He’s also getting swings and misses as never before.
With six strikeouts and no walks on Tuesday, he’s averaging 8.1 strikeouts per nine innings this year — up nearly 50 percent from his pre-2015 career average of 5.5 strikeouts per nine. Those sorts of swing-and-miss outcomes suggest that his recent performance uptick may be more than a mirage.
The Sox need it to be. In a stretch of inconsistent performances, the Sox need someone upon whom they can rely. Thirty-nine innings into his Red Sox career, Porcello looks like someone who is eager to provide just that.
“I just want to go out there and win. That’s all I really think about, is executing pitches and getting us Ws,” Porcello said. “We’ve got to step up as a staff and provide some stability for our offense. It was a nice win. Hopefully it gets us headed in the right direction.”
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