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Rick Porcello and his pursuit of sustained success

Red Sox pitcher Rick Porcello appeared relaxed Sunday as he spoke to the media at Fenway Park. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

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Is it possible for a Cy Young winner can be underrated? Certainly, it would appear one can be overlooked.

Rick Porcello will take the ball for the Red Sox on Monday, the first Opening Day assignment of his career. Yet despite the fact that he earned the American League Cy Young Award last season — with a 22-4 record, 3.15 ERA, 223 innings, and a league-leading 5.9 strikeouts per walk — you’ll find few people who expect him to be the best starting pitcher on his own team in 2017, let alone in the American League.


Multiple Vegas oddsmakers pegged Porcello’s odds of a Cy Young repeat at 33-to-1. When OddsShark.com revealed its list of AL Cy Young odds at the end of February, Porcello ranked 15th in the league. That tied him with Astros righthander Lance McCullers and Orioles righty Kevin Gausman, neither of whom has turned in anything like the performance Porcello had last year.

To win the Cy Young, those pitchers would have to accomplish something they haven’t come close to achieving. Yet their ability to make such a jump is viewed as being just as likely as Porcello’s to sustain what he did.

Why is there skepticism about the likelihood that Porcello can maintain his status as one of the best pitchers in the AL?

One possibility relates to Porcello’s track record and the sharp contrast of his 2015 and 2016 seasons. In 2015, his first year with the Red Sox, he went 9-15 with a 4.92 ERA. The fact that he went from a below-average performer to the Cy Young winner can create doubt about whether he can lay claim to a default assumption of elite performance.

Of course, such a view would focus primarily on the idea that 2016 was an outlier, rather than on the idea of 2015 as the exception to his career track. Yet had Porcello’s 2015 derailment not occurred, his 2016 season might have been viewed as far less stunning given the general direction of his career in Detroit.


Porcello skipped the upper minors to arrive in a major league rotation at age 20. He then evolved from a pitcher who threw little besides fastballs to a pitcher with six offerings at his disposal by the 2014 season. (According to BrooksBaseball.net, Porcello threw fastballs on 77.4 percent of his offerings as a rookie, including a 60.0 percent usage rate for his sinker. He has added to his arsenal the two-seam fastball, four-seam fastball, curve, slider, changeup, and cutter.)

In 2014, his age-25 season, Porcello surpassed 200 innings for the first time in his career, posted a then-career-best 3.43 ERA, and showed the capacity to deliver dominant performances, tying for the AL lead with three shutouts. He looked like someone capable of a breakthrough.

2017 Cy Young favorites A look at the preseason odds, average fastball velocity in miles per hour, and strikeouts per 9 innings.
Name Cy Young Odds Avg Fastball Velocity Strikeouts per 9
Chris Sale 2:1 92.8 9.3
Corey Kluber 3:1 92.5 9.5
David Price 5.5:1 92.9 8.9
Carlos Carrasco 10:1 93.8 9.2
Justin Verlander 10:1 93.5 10
Yu Darvish 10:1 93.3 11.8
Chris Archer 12:1 94.3 10.4
Dallas Keuchel 20:1 88.6 7.7
Cole Hamels 20:1 92.6 9
Aaron Sanchez 20:1 94.7 7.5
Danny Duffy 25:1 94.8 9.4
Felix Hernandez 25:1 90.5 7.2
Lance McCullers 33:1 93.9 11.8
Rick Porcello 33:1 90.2 7.6
Masahiro Tanaka 33:1 90.6 7.4
Kevin Gausman 33:1 94.7 8.7
SOURCE: OddsShark.com, Fangraphs.com

“I felt like I was getting better and better every year in Detroit, on a pretty good trend there,” said Porcello.

He wasn’t alone in that assessment.

“You could see every year that he got better, he got smarter as a pitcher. He did more than you expected for such a young pitcher. He talked to coaches, pitchers, and learned exactly what he needed to do to be successful. He put it to use,” said Jeff Jones, Porcello’s pitching coach for much of his time in Detroit. “Through his hard work, his stuff developed. His secondary pitches developed . . . To watch the progress he made from the time he first started until the time we traded him was tremendous.”


Interestingly, one of the transitions Porcello made in Detroit in order to become a better pitcher might work against him from the vantage point of his perceived ability to maintain elite status.

When Porcello came into the league, he represented one of the harder-throwing starters in the AL. He often touched the mid-90s with his two-seamer, topping out around 97 m.p.h. or even 98 m.p.h. That velocity was inconsistent, but he would flash it in a way that captured attention.

Over the years, Porcello adopted a less-is-more approach to velocity. Instead of trying to work at max effort, he started to prioritize movement, command, and deception — the ability to make different pitches look the same coming out of his hand. His understanding of how to excel as a pitcher evolved.

“He’s been doing this for a long time now. He’s at a very good age. When you’re at the age he’s at, he’s done this for as long as he’s done it, that’s when you start to figure out a lot about yourself and the type of pitcher you want to be and that you’re going to be,” said David Price, who pitched with Porcello in Detroit for half a season in 2014 before rejoining him with the Red Sox in 2016. “He really bought into it last year. He didn’t care about the radar gun. Me and him were talking about it halfway through the year: Whenever you try to throw a sinker a little bit harder — maybe 91, 92, 93 — it doesn’t have the action as opposed to when it drops down into the 88-90 range and let gravity do its work and take its toll on the baseball.”


The list of players ahead of him on the Cy Young list represents a who’s-who of hard throwers in the AL — even if they haven’t performed to the levels achieved by Porcello in 2016 or, for that matter, 2014.

McCullers has yet to throw more than 125 innings in the big league, but he throws hard and strikes out a lot of batters, even if in extremely inefficient fashion. Those are traits that lead oddsmakers to believe that a breakout by him is as likely as sustained performance by Porcello.

Is Porcello on the way to joining the above mural at JetBlue Park, or was last year an outlier?David Goldman/Associated Press/File 2017

“Velocity is sexy,” said Red Sox pitching coach Carl Willis. “It’s a good thing if you can command it, but velocity alone is not going to allow you to become a successful or Cy Young caliber pitcher. Pitchers who have won Cy Youngs in the past with exceptional velocity still have the ability to throw a depth breaking ball or throw a changeup off that velocity. There has to be some kind of separation from that velocity, whether it’s shape, change or speeds, or whatever. I think there’s more to pitching than velocity, but because you can sit there with a radar gun and throw 98 m.p.h., some people view that as instant success.”


There’s no denying the talent of hard throwers like McCullers, Gausman, and Aaron Sanchez. But that doesn’t mean that Porcello hasn’t found a technique that can allow him to excel. Deception, sequencing, and unpredictability are fundamental components of the art of pitching that can allow a pitcher to succeed beyond the raw power of his stuff.

“He makes himself unpredictable. While you don’t see 96, 97 m.p.h., you might see one that’s 91 with good sink, or you may see a curveball dropping in for a strike or maybe a cutter down and away,” said Willis. “There’s so many ways he can change sequences, move the ball in and out and up and down. It makes him unpredictable.”

None of that means Porcello should be viewed as the frontrunner to win the Cy Young again. Nonetheless, the assumption that 2016 represented a career year that cannot be replicated — or even approximated — ignores what Porcello does better than most other pitchers.

Such matters of perception seem to matter little to Porcello. So, too, do projections about what kind of statistical levels he might reach in the coming year. That said, he believes the elements of what made him so effective in 2016 represent a replicable formula for success and reliability.

“One season, it’s not like you’re sustaining it for a 16-game football season. Playing 162 games, you get 35 starts. You have to maintain that for over 200 innings. That’s a lot just in one year that you have to be able to repeat, especially in the division we’re in, seeing those hitters over and over again,” said Porcello.

“I don’t see any reason why I can’t [sustain last year’s performance levels]. I’m going to continue to prepare and do things I know how to do and hopefully continue to learn, make adjustments, and do all the things you have to do in this game in order to succeed.

“I think more importantly, if I can take the ball, be a quality pitcher for us every fifth day, give us an opportunity to win every fifth day, those are realistic goals and focuses of mine — not so much the statistics. That’s always been kind of my thought process in my head. Whether the numbers look great or not, I want to be a guy our team can rely on, and the other guys feel pretty confident that when I’m taking the ball we have a chance to win.”

That sense among his Red Sox teammates will accompany Porcello to the mound on Monday. That is his first opportunity to show whether his spectacular year in 2016 represented a singular run or the beginning of a redefined standard about who he will be going forward.

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Alex Speier can be reached at alex.speier@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter@alexspeier.