September 16, 2016
Deep, But Playable
Plus Ca Change, Plus C'est La Meme Throws
The Rope The Red Sox Used To Hang Ex-GM Ben Cherington is a brutal nickname, imo. But still, the sentiment expressed above is worth a record scratch/freeze frame: “How did we get here?”
First, a blind comparison:
There are a few things to note:
1) Player A is Rick Porcello’s 2013 season.
There are some obvious negatives (strikeout rate, ERA), but as the advanced metrics show you, he was actually quite a useful pitcher, and he made up for the lack of missed bats by keeping the ball on the ground and in the park (0.79 HR/9). More innings would have been nice but, if you were someone who buys wholesale into advanced metrics, you could make the case that this is the guy you’d anticipate would have the best next season of the three options above.
2) Player B is Rick Porcello’s 2015 season.
Ugh, that ERA. But the strikeout rate is up near Player B’s numbers, and the groundball rate is right in the same area, too. The walk rate is a bit higher, and while it’s not on the table, the home run rate is an unsightly 1.3 HR/9. Arguably the culprit is a significantly inflated BABIP, especially considering the .315 mark when there were many more groundballs to be had. One would figure that with the additional flyballs, any BABIP would be lower—at least relative to the 2013 season.
3) Player C is Rick Porcello’s 2016 season.
But you knew that by now, if you didn't know immediately. He’s seemingly blended the positive aspects of his 2013 and 2015 campaigns, maintaining that near-league-average strikeout rate, lowering his walk rate, throwing more innings, etc. Even his HR/9 is back down to a solid 0.93.
So the lingering question is… what changed? We’ve seen these elements of Porcello’s game before, but without the consistent success. Even when he had a dynamite DRA, it was difficult to foresee that trend continuing given the lack of whiffs. When he did whiff batters, they took advantage of his in-zone mistakes, resulting in far too many home runs (and hits) allowed.
There is, of course, a relatively obviously culprit; his 2016 BABIP. Currently at .270, it’s well below the league average of .298, and while the Red Sox defense can lay claim to some of that given their insanely talented outfield, Porcello generates a significant number of groundballs, where the Red Sox are middle-of-the-pack in terms of turning balls in play into outs. So certainly, a lower BABIP might be a factor in regards to Porcello’s 2016 success, but it’s possible that he might have earned that lower BABIP by generating weaker contact… except Porcello is allowing essentially the same exit velocity he allowed last year:
Or maybe it has something to do with Porcello’s mix of pitches, except…
It’s not markedly different from previous seasons, where he’s never been able to maintain this kind of success on balls in play. In fact, per BrooksBaseball, his pitch mix most closely resembles the 2013 season referenced above, with a small shift from his offspeed pitches to his cutter...which he’s had the previous two seasons and which has not produced anything near this level of results.
It’s worth noting that more regular observers of Porcello than I have noted an uptick in his fastball command, as well as a change in the usage patterns of his fastball. That’s something that August Fagerstrom picked up on over at FanGraphs in May, and that uptick has stayed consistent throughout the season as Porcello has fired 306 two-strike four-seamers, good for 45 percent of his total four-seam usage this season. While the change in four-seam strategy isn’t new, Porcello’s commitment to it is certainly at its highest level, and that’s an adjustment worth noting... except he’s striking out fewer players than he did in the midst of a rough 2015, so that can only account for so much.
Still, there is something to the notion that Porcello is reading from the same playbook as 2015, just with better execution. Manager John Farrell stated to NESN that he believed Porcello’s ability to locate his two-seamer was a major component of his turnaround. Below are a side-by-side of his zone profiles (all pitches) from this year (left) and last year (right):
He’s living in the zone much more often this year than last and he’s not going to be able to do that with this type of success without something getting better, because we know hitters were able to punish the (comparatively fewer) offerings he left in the zone last year. When examining the movement on his pitches compared to years past, there are some minor differences but not enough to explain the reversal of fortune to this degree. So it stands to reason that what he’s been able to improve is his ability to command and sequence his offerings to keep hitters guessing. And those are important things, but they’re also things we don’t have a great grip on when distributing credit or blame, nor year-to-year repeatability. Maybe he keeps the lion’s share of these gains due to some now-mastered skills, but zooming out on this kind of step forward, with these peripherals and this lack of substantive change, would suggest something more like a half-step back from these gains, if not more.
tl;dr: While many things about Porcello are slightly different compared to his previous iterations, none of them justifies or drives the dip in BABIP he’s experienced—not specifically from last year, when it was inflated, but from his career average.
Which means what? That’s he’s gotten lucky this season? I’d posit that yes, the road has risen to meet him, he’s had the wind always at his back, and the sun has shone warm upon his face. None of which invalidates his success, nor his case as a Cy Young contender.
Perhaps he was fortunate, but he, Rick Porcello, was fortunate. Let’s say you go to a vending machine, punch in C3 (you’re getting a Twix because nothing satisfies like the cookie crunch), and as the machine uncorks your item an extra candy bar shakes loose! How great! You now have twice the Twixes. You did nothing to earn such a bounty and yet there, undeniably in your hand are two Twix candy bars. Well, okay, four. Two lefts, two rights. But you have them, whether in a different, fairer dimension you would or would not. So Porcello received an extra candy bar in 2016. His chips got stuck in the machine last year. He’s the same guy who punched in C3, but he got different results. Sometimes they stock the machine differently, sometimes it breaks. It’s possible that the improvements Porcello has seen make him more likely to be the guy that gets two candy bars when he buys one, but to expect that from him the next time he makes a purchase is as foolish now as it was before the season began.