There’s a growing body of evidence that suggests that the start of Rick Porcello’s Red Sox career represented the aberration, and that the 27-year-old is very much the solid mid-rotation starter whom the Sox hoped to get when they acquired him from the Tigers for Yoenis Cespedes.
On Wednesday, against a Rays lineup that has been among the worst in baseball, Porcello offered an outing that showed the ability to deliver in a moment of team need in the Sox’ 7-3 win. One night after the bullpen was taxed for nine innings of work, he gave most of the bullpen a night of rest with seven innings in which he permitted three runs (all of which came after the outcome was largely a foregone conclusion), striking out nine, and walking one.
A year ago, Porcello looked like a pitcher trying to rediscover how to use his fastball – or, more accurately, his fastballs. His velocity ticked up, particularly on his four-seamer, and so he tilted his usage more toward that pitch, with an effort to beat bats above the zone, and away from the sinking two-seamer that had been a staple of his success.
No longer. According to data on Brooks Baseball, sinkers accounted for a 63 percent share of his pitches on Wednesday, his most in a start since 2012. Overall, he’s throwing his sinker at a 59 percent rate this year, his highest usage since his rookie year of 2009. He’s throwing 5.2 two-seam fastballs per four-seamer, the highest ratio of his career and a more than threefold increase over the 1.5 two-seamers he threw for every four-seamer he employed in 2015.
Interestingly, one year after being seduced by velocity as if it was an agent of the Dark Side, he’s tapped the brakes a bit. He’s throwing his two-seamer at an average of 89.8 m.p.h., the lowest velocity of his career with the pitch, in what appears to be an attempt to sacrifice power for location – along with an arm slot that he can use effectively for both his fastball and changeup to create deception that has contributed to his swings and misses.
“He’s been very consistent with staying out of the middle of the plate,” said Sox manager John Farrell. “I think he figured some things out late in spring training from just an arm slot standpoint. He’s been much more consistent down in the strike zone. You look at the strikeout totals and it’s not the high four-seam fastballs that early last year that he was going to.”
It is the confidence of a pitcher who appears to know exactly how he’s trying to execute instead of one who is amidst a novel career transition. The 20-start impression at the start of Porcello’s Red Sox career, in which he posted a 5.81 ERA that ranked among the worst in the game, has given way to notable effectiveness. In each of his last 11 starts dating to Aug. 26, Porcello has thrown at least six innings, posting a 3.52 ERA over that span – a mark that closely approximates the 3.43 mark he posted in 2014, his final year with Detroit.
In each of his last six outings, he’s punched out at least six batters. While his 4.66 ERA through three starts in 2016 appears gaudy (the product of five homers allowed in three starts), his 11.2 strikeouts per nine innings, 8.0 strikeouts per walk, and 0.931 WHIP all rank in the top 10 in the American League and suggest quality work.
The home runs, of course, cloud the view somewhat. Even so, Porcello has looked like a pitcher capable of delivering reliably solid starts, giving the Sox a degree of dependability behind Price.
The perception of Porcello will always be framed by his acquisition for Cespedes, the four-year, $82.5 million extension he received before throwing his first pitch for the Red Sox, and those first 20 starts. But to the Red Sox, the conditions of his entry into the organization are now irrelevant.
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The organization cares solely about what he’s capable of doing going forward. If he can be something akin to the pitcher he was in Detroit – something that has seemed within reach since his return from the DL last August – the Sox will welcome the resulting sense of stability he provides.
“The contract is the contract,” Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski said of Porcello in spring training. “Now we just need you to settle in and be the type of pitcher you can be. In his career, he’s established himself as the type of guy who can win 15 games at the big league level. You may argue that he got too much money. You may argue that he didn’t get paid enough. Really, at this point, it’s superfluous. Let’s get the most out of his performance that he can provide.”
Follow Alex Speier on Twitter at @alexspeier.