The Continued Growth of Rick Porcello, Cy Young Candidate

On Monday night in Baltimore, Rick Porcello allowed two earned runs in a complete-game victory, striking out seven batters without a walk. That outing lowered his season ERA to 3.08, topped in the American League only by Masahiro Tanaka and Chris Sale. It raised his innings total to 210.2, topped in the AL only by Sale and Porcello’s teammate, David Price. It improved his pitcher record to 21-4 — which, I don’t need to tell you how poor of an evaluating tool pitcher record is, but there’s a part of me that refuses not to be at least a little impressed by 21-4.

Porcello, over the last month or so, has gone from fringe Cy Young candidate to a legitimate possibility. Sale is the only AL pitcher with a higher RA9-WAR and FIP-WAR than Porcello. The argument is right there if you want to make it. Sure, you could probably make the argument that Porcello’s ERA is more a product of good fortune than performance by pointing to his .260 batting average on balls in play, which is 42 points lower than his career mark. But then also you’ve got to consider that his career mark’s probably unfairly inflated by his being a ground-ball pitcher in front of Detroit’s defense for so many years, and that the BABIPs of his strongest Cy Young competitors are similarly depressed.

So you could make the case that Porcello’s numbers point more to good fortune than performance, or you could make the case that Porcello has made some legitimately compelling strides in the way he pitches.

This winter, our own Jeff Sullivan noted that, late last year, Porcello had morphed his curveball into a near-replica of the famous hook thrown by Adam Wainwright. Back in May, I wrote about how Porcello seemed to finally be learning the best mix of his two-seam and four-seam fastballs, and how to properly use the latter.

My tagline for that piece was, “When heightening the quantity of the four-seamer backfired, he heightened the quality instead.” In short, Porcello threw his four-seam fastball more than ever in 2015, his first season in Boston, at times throwing it more often than his trusty sinker. Porcello gets some of the best four-seam spin in the game, so it was an intriguing idea, but the results were bad. In May of this year, Porcello had more or less reverted to his typical four-seam usage rates, except with a twist: an unprecedented percentage of his four-seamers were coming in two-strike counts, and he was elevating them to get the most out of the spin, and it was working. The two-seam got him ahead, and he used the four-seam only when he needed to, to put batters away. Quality over quantity.

Except now, as Porcello’s morphed from fringe to legitimate Cy Young contender, there’s been another development in the fastball department. It looks like this:

brooksbaseball-chart

The quantity is back. That’s Porcello’s four-seam usage rate, by month, since the beginning of the season. Since I wrote that article in May, Porcello’s raised his overall four-seam usage rate from 14.9% over the first month and a half to 27% in September. In his September 14 start against Baltimore, he led with it (38%), throwing 18 more four-seams than sinkers.

And he’s increased that usage in a very particular way. Early in the season, Porcello figured out that his four-seam was best used as a two-strike weapon. Lately, he’s figured out another way to use it.

Rick Porcello Four-Seam Usage vs. LHB, by Month
Month Total First Pitch Two-Strike
April 17% 6% 32%
May 19% 10% 31%
June 24% 11% 34%
July 30% 11% 40%
August 31% 20% 39%
September 36% 38% 46%
SOURCE: Brooks Baseball

The usage rate against righties hasn’t changed nearly as much, fluctuating between 12-20% for much of the year. No, instead, the added four-seamers have come almost exclusively against left-handed batters, as Porcello’s nearly doubled his usage rate against lefties with the pitch since the beginning of the season.

And, while the two-strike fastball was an early-season development, it’s not been until recently that Porcello’s started going to the four-seamer early in counts, too. Going back to that September 14 start against Baltimore, in which Porcello threw eight innings of one-run ball, here’s how he started off the 12 lefties he faced:

  • Changeup
  • Four-seam
  • Sinker
  • Four-seam
  • Curveball
  • Four-seam
  • Four-seam
  • Four-seam
  • Four-seam
  • Changeup
  • Changeup
  • Four-seam

This is not the Rick Porcello we’ve grown to know. This is a new Rick Porcello, with whom we ought to become acclimated.

And it’s not just the way Porcello uses his four-seamers against lefties that’s changed. It’s the way he’s using the two-seamer against lefties, as well. The lefty four-seamer has changed in frequency. The lefty two-seamer has changed in location:

Rick Porcello Two-Seam Location vs. LHB, by Year
Year Sinkers Sinkers, Inside Inside Sinker%
2009 859 203 23.6%
2010 648 187 28.9%
2011 665 152 22.9%
2012 624 141 22.6%
2013 429 145 33.8%
2014 396 157 39.6%
2015 401 163 40.6%
2016 509 232 45.6%
SOURCE: Baseball Savant
“Inside” defined as being on the inner-half of the strike zone or beyond, per PITCHf/x

In his early Tigers days, Porcello hovered around a quarter of his two-seam fastballs coming inside to lefties. As time went on, that gradually increased, but it’s now spiked during his time in Boston, and nearly half of Porcello’s two-seam fastballs to lefties are in on the hands. Why throw the two-seam inside to lefties? Here’s Porcello’s career BABIP against lefties with the two-seam, broken into zones:

rick-porcello
Throughout his career, when Porcello’s gotten the two-seamer inside on lefties, the BABIP’s been just .255. Porcello’s throwing the two-seamer inside now more than ever. That career-low overall season BABIP is starting to feel a little less like luck and a little more like process.

Add it all up, and Porcello’s results against his opposite-handed foes are particularly compelling:

Rick Porcello’s Results vs. LHB, by Year
Year IP K% BB% K-BB% BABIP WHIP wOBA FIP
2009 95.0 12.1% 6.6% 5.5% .292 1.41 .331 4.68
2010 82.2 10.1% 6.0% 4.1% .321 1.51 .346 4.39
2011 104.0 13.8% 6.2% 7.6% .347 1.61 .373 4.51
2012 88.1 13.0% 8.0% 5.0% .356 1.77 .380 4.68
2013 85.0 15.5% 8.0% 7.5% .336 1.61 .353 4.45
2014 115.1 14.3% 6.1% 8.2% .296 1.27 .320 3.77
2015 94.1 20.2% 5.4% 14.8% .327 1.38 .351 4.46
2016 113.2 21.6% 3.6% 18.0% .259 0.93 .253 2.91

It’s career-bests across the board, in some instances by laughable margins. The last two columns being the most important, and also perhaps the most striking. A touch over 100 innings is perhaps too small a sample to declare that Rick Porcello has figured out lefties, but it sure looks like Rick Porcello’s figured out the lefties who have plagued him throughout his career. The formula? More four-seam fastballs than ever, particularly early in the count, and more two-seamers inside for weak contact.

Changing the way he uses his fastballs against lefties has helped shore up the biggest weakness of his game. Shoring up that weakness has helped him average more innings per start than all but four pitchers this season. Getting the most out of both quality and quantity has turned Rick Porcello into a legitimate Cy Young contender.

We hoped you liked reading The Continued Growth of Rick Porcello, Cy Young Candidate by August Fagerstrom!

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August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at august.fagerstrom@fangraphs.com.

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LMOTFOTE
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Member
LMOTFOTE

I can’t be the only one who never saw this coming. Tigers fan so I’ve watched him for years and he’s always looked like a solid #4 starter, maybe a 3 or 5 depending on some luck and how many LH batters he had to face. But he’s getting out lefties, go figure. I would have guessed that his take down of Kevin Youkilis would be how he’s remembered but a Cy Young probably tops that….

kbn
Member
kbn

I think that modern pitching (and more importantly, modern player development) is starting to catch up to the idea that velocity isn’t the only dominant indicator of potential pitching excellence. Porcello came up before front offices were able to measure (much less value) spin rate and other quantitative advanced metrics, but he’s still young enough that the PitchFX revolution arrived in time for his prime.

I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’m sure he’s going to regress quite a bit next year. I am extremely skeptical that luck *hasn’t* played a significant role in his 2016 results. But there’s no doubt that he has been consciously modifying his approach to better leverage his own strengths, and those strengths have always been impressive (if less flashy than high-90s heat).