Rick Porcello and Wins

Before spring training started, Scott Lauber at ESPN explored whether Rick Porcello could match his 22-win season from 2016. The short answer? No. Probably, almost definitely, not.

Conventional wisdom would swiftly say that, too, though. Three pitchers netted 20 wins last year, two in 2015, and three in 2014. And over those three years, none of the pitchers repeated the feat.

With wins speaking to much more than simply the pitcher on the mound, there are two things to consider when digging into the question: What could Porcello repeat, and what could the Red Sox offense?

Let’s start with the offense. Lauber’s article acknowledges that the Sox scored a league-leading 5.42 runs per game last year, and 6.83 per Porcello start. The biggest difference between this year’s and last year’s team is Mitch Moreland replacing David Ortiz. You could close your eyes and dip your hand into a bowl of cold spaghetti like it’s a Halloween Horror House and pull out the contrast between their production. As is, Moreland is projected to be worth about half a win next season. Alone, that suggests how the Sox could have struggles producing the same way in 2017.

But there are other questions to answer, too. How will top prospect Andrew Benintendi fare? Will Pablo Sandoval make any difference or continue to be negligible? I’m not suggesting the Sox won’t be good. It would be hard for them not to be. But they have enough variables going into the year that Porcello getting another 20+ wins is largely on him, which could be difficult for reasons beyond conventional wisdom.

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These numbers tend to feed into each other, which is why they’re useful in seeing just how good Porcello was, and how well things broke for him last year. His pitching profile was relatively similar to past seasons, though. It’s not like Drew Pomeranz discovering a new pitch or Brandon Finnegan changing a grip. Porcello’s sinker (or two-seamer, depending which stat site you reference) gets a lot of the credit for his exceptional performance, but differences in his curveball may reveal reasons for it, too.

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None of these changes are insignificant. The h-movement tells us Porcello’s curve ran away more from right-handed hitters and in on lefties. The v-movement tells us it dropped more. Add in how it was three mph slower and it rounds out how the pitch fell off the table more. He worked the zone more up and down over the plate than he did side to side in the two years prior, so it could have messed with batters more when the rest of his pitches moved as they have.

According to Lauber, Porcello mimicking anything close to 2016 will come down to “keeping hitters honest with his off-speed pitches.” Opponents hit .190 against his slider and .174 against his changeup. That could concern pitch-sequencing. Take a look at how he distributed his offerings in general, and then when ahead or behind in the count.

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While the numbers don’t detail specifically when each pitch was thrown, they indicate that Porcello was eerily similar no matter what the count was. Sequencing isn’t about finding a magic combination of pitches; it’s about making sure a hitter can’t tell what’s coming. It certainly seems he was successful at it.

This data shines light on the tiny changes that might make a big difference in the game, which is one of the most fascinating aspects of baseball. But even more interesting is a quote from Dave Dombrowski in the ESPN piece, where he said, “I don’t think [Porcello] will try to do too much anymore.”

By itself, that reads like a generic sports-interview statement. But think about what the concept of “trying to do too much” really means in baseball: trying to do too much of one thing. A guy tries to hit a five-run homer or hit 100 on the gun every time; really tries to impose his will over the game by doing something impossible. Porcello wasn’t relying on any one pitch in 2016. And what Dombrowski is hinting at here, intentional or not, is there’s a certain amount of surrender that’s necessary for faring well in baseball.

Lauber tells how Porcello best explains his 2016 success by saying he “better understands what makes him effective.” Maybe that has to do with knowing how much the game controls versus how much he can, which let him harness his own abilities more.

I fear a lesser 2017 from Porcello could be called a disappointment by some, but an advanced understanding doesn’t always mean advanced success. The reality is it was a great year aided by good luck, probably buoyed by the cognizance that has allowed Porcello to be a contributing major-leaguer since he was 21. Maybe he isn’t as good this coming season, but it doesn’t take away from the player he is.

career and pitch movement data from FanGraphs; pitch usage from Baseball Savant

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Tim Jackson is a writer and educator who loves pitching duels. Find him and all his baseball thoughts online at timjacksonwrites.com/baseball and @TimCertain.

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