You’d be forgiven, in a week where the three biggest free agents on the market signed for the better part of a billion dollars, for suffering from a little contract fatigue. The Angels and Yankees are both fascinating to think about — the Yankees for the neo-Evil Empire vibe the Cole signing gives off, and the Angels because hey, Mike Trout and Anthony Rendon are fun together. The Nationals re-signing Strasburg was the least interesting of the three, and he was just the World Series MVP on the team he helped make nationally relevant!
So in that light, I’m not going to try to convince you that the Mets signing Rick Porcello is an earth-shattering, franchise altering move. It’s a neat coincidence that the terms of the contract, one year and $10 million, match Blake Treinen’s deal with the Dodgers — two pitchers trying to prove they still have it. But in terms of competitive impact, it’s a meat and potatoes kind of deal; it will make the team a little better for 2020, in the way that adding competent pitchers does, without significantly changing the general circus that is the Mets.
So instead of detailing the prospective Mets rotation, let’s look at a few mystery players. First, here are two pitchers who seem pretty okay:
Not much separating them, right? Pitcher B actually pitched in a marginally tougher run scoring environment, though not by much. I’m not sure which of these two I’d prefer, but it wouldn’t be by much either way.
Pitcher A, naturally in an article about Rick Porcello, is Rick Porcello’s 2016 Cy Young season. It’s easy to say that it was just about the wins, 22 gleaming wins blinding voters to his good-but-not-great numbers. But he had 5.1 WAR that year, the best of his career. Maybe it wasn’t the most deserving performance (sorry Justin!), but it was an excellent year.
Pitcher B? That’s Rick Porcello in 2018. I’ve picked the statistics I’m showing you carefully, of course: Porcello pitched 32 more innings in 2016 than he did in 2018, and recorded a lower FIP by a whopping 0.61 points. He had a lower BABIP and HR/FB%, and a higher LOB%, in 2016. In terms of actual runs prevented, not merely the building blocks of it, he was far better in 2016.
But to me, that just goes to show that Rick Porcello is the kind of guy who’s capable of spiking a five-win season, and just as capable of being only okay. His 2018 was perfectly fine — 2.4 WAR, nearly 200 innings of league average starting in a league hungry for reliable pitching — but if things broke a little differently, he could have been great again.
Or he could have been worse. Let’s consider two more mystery players:
Who do you have this time? I’m not really sure. Pitcher B is worse on the merits — more walks, worse FIP- (they pitched in different run environments, hence the adjusted stat), and not enough strikeouts or grounders to up the difference. But the contact stats are interesting — Player B missed more bats and limited high-value batted balls better, even if it didn’t quite show in the results.
Player A is Porcello in 2019. Player B is Jason Vargas in 2019. That’s a worrisome comparison, because Vargas was clinging to the fringes of the majors for much of the year. He closed the year with a creditable 1.8 WAR, but his underlying numbers looked worse than that, and no one is beating down his door to sign him this offseason.
Of course, Porcello isn’t 2019 Vargas. He’s six years younger, for one thing, and his average fastball was nearly 7 mph faster than the crafty lefty. But there were a few concerning parallels; Porcello’s velocity is down by around 1.5 mph since his masterful 2016, and his fastball barely did better than Vargas’s 84.5 mph anti-heater when it came to missing bats — they both finished in the bottom half of starters in whiffs per swing on four-seamers.
In many ways, Porcello wasn’t that different in 2018 and 2019. He finished with a similar WAR and made more than 25 starts, the 10th straight year he’s reached the mark. His fastball didn’t have its customary ride, but it didn’t lose spin or all that much spin efficiency; it just came out of his hand differently, as he added some horizontal movement at the cost of vertical. That left the pitch a little flatter than is optimal, and he’ll likely try to get more vertical movement next year, but it’s not a death knell or anything.
But the fact that his underlying stuff wasn’t that different just means that Porcello is always living on the edge. He’s not the kind of pitcher who can get by on a carrying pitch that cleans up messes. He doesn’t throw a breaking ball that he could use more to effect a magical, Tanaka-esque change. He’s simply decent across the board, and that makes the fall-off between 2018 and 2019 slightly more concerning.
One last comparison, while I have you here:
Player B is Porcello’s 2020 Steamer projections (I left out ERA and FIP in this comparison because they’re still projected for Fenway). Player A is Jon Lester’s 2020 Steamer projections. If that’s what Porcello is, a post-peak but still serviceable player, the Mets will be happy with their signing. Starting pitching doesn’t grow on trees, after all, and between Steven Matz (also projected very similarly to Porcello!) and Michael Wacha, they’re not short on injury risks.
Will Porcello regain the good-to-great form he found at times on the Red Sox? I have no idea! The raw stuff, such as it is, is still there; Porcello was never overpowering, but he doesn’t look to have lost much, and at 30, he’s not near the end of his career. One good season, more 2018 than 2019, and he might start to look more like Miles Mikolas, another 30-something pitcher with low strikeout and walk rates, than Vargas. That doesn’t mean he’ll regain that form, though; it’s possible that the small edges he’s lost are too much to overcome, and that he’ll never get back to his 2018 numbers again.
I suspect that this deal was Porcello’s idea, not New York’s. His track record is such that if he wanted a multi-year deal with a similar average value, he likely could have gotten it. In fact, Jon Heyman reported that he turned down multi-year offers to play for the Mets.
That makes perfect sense to me. Let’s say Porcello has a disastrous 2020, like his 2019 but with fewer strikeouts and more walks and dingers. He could probably find someone to take a shot on him in 2021, for $6 million or $7 million or something like that, and hope it was just a one year blip. After all, pitching is always in style. But if he has a good year, maybe he goes into next offseason and signs for three years at, say, $14 million a year, or heck, maybe even something more than that.
The Mets don’t know what they’re getting in Rick Porcello in 2020. But that’s not a strictly bad thing. There could be anything in the mystery bag, and if it contains 200 innings of average or above average pitching, that will be a boon for a team in the competitive NL East. And if it contains 200 innings of above average pitching, it’s a great deal for Porcello too. He’s no Gerrit Cole — but when have the Mets ever lived up to the Yankees? In its own way, the Porcello signing looks pretty decent to me.
Ben is a contributor to FanGraphs. A lifelong Cardinals fan, he got his start writing for Viva El Birdos. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.