As the Red Sox examine potential upgrades for 2017, it’s worth recalling one of the biggest ones they enjoyed in 2016.
It’s difficult to overstate the transformation undertaken by Rick Porcello over the 2016 season. After the disappointment of a 9-15 season and 4.92 ERA in his first year in Boston, he emerged as an elite performer in his second. He went 22-4 with a 3.15 ERA in a whopping 223 innings while leading the American League in strikeout-to-walk ratio. On Wednesday, as Ian Browne of MLB.com writes, Porcello’s work was recognized by his peers as the AL’s Outstanding Pitcher in the Players Choice Awards.
With the benefit of hindsight, Porcello was able to appreciate the distinctive challenges presented by a 2015 season that represented his first career change of organizations. The desire to live up to the expectations of the contract coupled with an adjustment to a new environment challenged him in 2015 and made it harder for him to perform to his capabilities.
“I wouldn’t say that the contract itself entirely was a factor last year. I think that coming to a new place, teammates, organization, fans, all of that collectively, Boston, the Red Sox, all of that collectively was something that I have a lot of respect for. I wanted to put my best foot forward,” Porcello said late in the season. “It really took an adverse effect. It kind of got worse and worse as the season went on. The more I tried to get better and produce, it didn’t happen. It went in the opposite direction.
“I can’t say that it was just a contract. I think it was a lot of different things that you encounter when you first come to Boston. You’ve kind of got to go through them, experience them to figure out how to handle them.”
It took Porcello most of 2015 to figure that out, but once he did, he carried his late-2015 breakthrough into and through the 2016 season. He became an anchor of the pitching staff.
That example looms over the Sox’ outlook for the coming year. As much as there will be speculation about whether the Red Sox will make a hard push for Chris Sale, Jose Quintana, or Justin Verlander — should any become available — president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski continues to espouse a ruddy outlook, in no small part based on the Porcello experience. He expressed optimism that the team’s rotation, which finished third in the AL with a 4.22 ERA, stands to improve in the coming year in part because the time of change will be behind David Price, Drew Pomeranz, and Craig Kimbrel.
“I think anybody has a transition, including David Price,” said Dombrowski. “I know what his earned run average (3.99) was. I don’t think that was David Price-ish. But you look at it, he led the league in innings pitched, among the league leaders in strikeouts, he won 17 games, he pitched eight innings I think more than anybody or second most in the league. He was very, very good for us, and I think coming back this second year that he’ll even be better.
“I would say the same thing with Craig Kimbrel. I would say that it was a transition for him. He was good enough to make the All-Star team. He pitched well for us. But I think he can even pitch a little bit better, but I think a lot of that will just be getting situated and being comfortable in a new environment. That takes a little bit of time. People don’t realize that that’s not something you just snap your fingers and it happens. It takes some time. We love them both.”
Though Pomeranz’s ERA nearly doubled from his first-half performance in San Diego (2.47) to his second half with the Sox (4.59), Dombrowski anticipates improvement from the lefthander next season.
“We thought he was a real good pitcher [when trading for him],” said Dombrowski. “I think that there was a time when he pitched really well for us, and there was another time period where he was not quite as sharp, but that’s pretty much what happens at that time of year. He made the All-Star team last year and I think he’ll pitch at the capability to make the All-Star team again this year. We really like him.”
If the Red Sox decline to make a move for a frontline starter this offseason, it will be a reflection of both the scarcity of options — the cost of landing a top starter via trade is expected to be exorbitant given the paper-thin class of free agent starters — and, not inconsequentially, the Sox’ belief in their current inventory. While it remains to be seen whether that belief is justified, Porcello offers a reminder that pitchers are capable of performing different in their second season in Boston compared to their first.
Follow Alex Speier on Twitter @alexspeier.