Boston’s Rick Porcello enters tonight’s ALDS Game Four at Yankee Stadium — a potential clincher for the Red Sox — having recorded the second-highest pitching WAR and most innings for a Boston club that won 108 games. The 29-year-old right-hander also goes in with 10 full seasons of big-league experience. He’s learned a lot in those 10 seasons.
Porcello is savvy — in a number of ways. Fully at home with analytics — terms like “spin axis” are part of his vernacular — Porcello is equally reliant on his instincts. The 1,800-plus major-leauge innings he’s authored have taught him that an ability to adjust on the fly is invaluable. He knows that hitters have just as much access to data as he does.
He’s evolved since debuting with the Detroit Tigers in 2009. Primarily a ground-ball specialist in his earliest seasons, Porcello now relies heavily on elevated four-seam fastballs. He’s not a flame-thrower — his heater sits in the low 90s — but thanks to an above-average spin rate and an array of offspeed offerings, he’s become increasingly effective upstairs. Changing eye levels is a key. When he’s on his game, Porcello is adept at getting hitters to chase pitches both above and below the strike zone.
Rick Porcello on learning what works: “Through experience, I’ve acquired knowledge of what it takes to be a starting pitcher at the big-league level. That includes what it takes to go out there every five days as a starting pitcher. There’s a learning process involved. There’s mental preparation and physical preparation.
“As far as attacking hitters, there have been ebbs and flows since I first got to the big leagues — which pitches are effective, which zones to throw to. For example, the high fastball. Nobody threw that when I got here. The high fastball was just to change eye levels, then you’d get back down and try to command the ball at the bottom of the zone. It’s completely different now.
“Learning how my stuff plays against hitters is another thing that takes experience. How it’s different from other pitchers that I’ll watch and try to learn from. You have to go out there and find out. It’s basically trial and error. I’ve found out that my fastball, regardless of the velocity, plays very well against certain hitters.
“There’s a fine line between looking at a scouting report and saying, ‘This guy is a bad breaking-ball hitter’ and just going right to breaking balls, as opposed to, ‘Hang on a second; that may be his weakness, but my strength is fastballs.’ There’s a balance to pitching. It takes experience to understand when it’s maybe time to jump ship on your fastball and throw breaking balls, and when to stick with your strength.”
On balancing information and instincts: “I’ve thought about [how differently I might be pitching without access to data]. Would I be better? Would I be worse? Would I be the same? Ultimately, what I can offer on the mound is… I do the best version of myself on every fifth day. There are days where the information we have really benefits me in a particular game. I go out there and pitch well because of some of the resources we have.
“There could be other games where it causes me to overthink. Like I said, jumping ship on my fastball and going right to breaking balls because I have all these numbers that show me this guy can’t hit a breaking ball. If I’m not going to show him my fastball and teach him that velocity, all of a sudden he’s not geared up to hit a fastball. He’s got a better chance to hit my breaking ball. I have to be cognizant of that.
“Relying on the information too much and not trusting what you see in that game — you’re just going off the numbers in your head — can lead to mistakes. It can lead to not pitching instinctually. You’re kind of a robot, regurgitating what you thought you should do based on what the numbers said you should do. That’s not necessarily an effective approach for me. I use the numbers as much as I can, but I have to pitch instinctually, game to game, too.
“As a pitcher, you dictate the game — you command what you’re going to do — but there are also certain things that just don’t work. There are bad matchups against certain guys. Sometimes you have to get out of your comfort zone and try to execute different pitches in different quadrants.”
On adapting his game: “When I first got to the big leagues, I didn’t have a breaking ball. I didn’t really utilize a four-seam fastball. I was pretty much sinker-changeup. At that particular time, that combination worked fairly well against the hitters, and the approaches of the offenses, that I was facing.
“Had things stayed the same, I would be heavier sinker-ball than I am now. That’s because I could be. I’ve had to make adjustments. Pitching to contact, sinkers at the bottom of the zone… that isn’t getting as good results as it once did. Especially against left-handed hitters. I’ve had to evolve with the approaches of individual hitters’ swing paths. I’ve had to try to create different angles for certain guys.
“If a manager stacks his lineup with lefties — lefties with good, low swing paths — you have to do something else besides throw sinkers down in the zone. That’s why I’ve evolved. Again, if this was still 2009 and there were a lot of guys with flat, level swings — contact-oriented hitters who would hit the ball on the ground — then I could pitch to contact more. But hitters aren’t contact-oriented now. They’re home-run-oriented.
“Pitching to contact works up until the point where one of them hits it on the barrel and it goes out of the ballpark. That threat wasn’t as imminent when I first got here. There were one or two guys on each team you would identify as power threats. Everybody else was trying to grind you out and hit a line drive back up the middle. Now everybody is trying to barrel the ball at a certain launch angle to get it in the air. That’s played into my favor, as far as my four-seam fastball. It’s made my four-seamer relevant, whereas in 2009 it wasn’t as relevant.”
On elevated fastballs and changing eye levels: “I was talking to Ryan Brasier the other day. He said, ‘When I first got to the big leagues [in 2013], all I did was throw high fastballs and they got crushed. Now I throw high fastballs and strike a lot of guys out.’ That’s the evolution of the game. It’s made his fastball, and his repertoire, effective.
“I’m a starting pitcher, so I’m seeing hitters two or three times over the course of a game. My fastball isn’t Ryan Brasier’s fastball. It’s not 98. My fastball is 92-93, so if I don’t create some kind of separation with my breaking ball, or any kind of effective pitch in the lower part of the zone, then the high fastball isn’t as effective. That’s because the hitters aren’t looking down there. Their sights are up, and they’re looking to get on top of the ball.
“The reason the high fastball works for me is that I’ll throw curveballs, changeups, and two-seamers at the bottom of the zone. If I’m executing those pitches well, they have to be worried about down, so I can go up. It’s a simpler approach for a hitter if he only has to worry about one area of the plate. These are big-league hitters. If they get three chances, they’re going to execute at least once.
“There are two completely different moves to hit a baseball. If a hitter is focused on trying to hit the bottom half of a sinker at the bottom of the zone, it’s going to be a helluva lot harder for him to hit the top half of the ball on a four-seamer up in the zone. It’s no coincidence that when I’m commanding low in the zone and getting some decent results down there — I’m stealing some strikes — my four-seamer plays a lot better.”
On data, sequencing, and adjusting on the fly: “I have an approach that I’m trying to establish, and as the season goes on, the numbers become a lot more reinforced. You see that this hitter is trying to do this early in the count, and he’s trying to do this late in the count. Sometimes that means you have to flip-flop your approach. These guys have so much information. They have a bleeping iPad right there on the on-deck circle, looking at your stuff, looking at your numbers. They have your count percentages. They have everything.
“You can preplan sequences all you want, but if the sequence you planned on executing isn’t working… Say you’re not throwing a good two-seamer, arm-side down and away, to a left-handed hitter on that given day. You just don’t have the feel for it. Now you have to figure out something else to keep those guys off balance. There are games where I want to throw a bunch of curveballs, or a bunch of changeups or cutters, and I throw three, four, five of them in a game and none of them are good.
“When that happens, you’re not going to rely on that pitch in a big situation. You have to make an adjustment mid-game. You had all of these things planned — you were going to do this, this, and this to a certain hitter — but if you’re only executing a pitch 50% of the time that day, what about the other 50%?
“What makes a good big-league pitcher is being able to go into the game knowing what you’re going to do, then being able to adjust. You have to balance the information — the knowledge of what a hitter does well and what you do well — with an understanding of what’s working, and not working, on that given day. You get that through experience.”
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.