As a fan of Rick Porcello out of the draft and through his one season in the minor leagues, it shocked me as it did most others when he was promoted straight to the majors in 2009. While he managed quite well that season, for a 20-year-old with relatively scant professional experience, it only served to whet the appetites of fantasy owners. We all thought he could continue to build on his rookie season, learning to mix the strikeout ability he showed as a prep schooler with the ground-ball tendencies he’d developed as a professional. Unfortunately, 2009 has served as Porcello’s banner season to date, at least as far as surface stats go, as he posted his best full-season ERA (3.96) and WHIP (1.34). The underlying stats though, were not so exciting, as Porcello had failed to crack 14 percent with his strikeout rate, though he did keep the walks in check, never exceeding six percent after that initial season. So when Porcello received hype once again this offseason, I was wary. We’d heard it all before and been disappointed time and again. This season appears to be much of the same… or is it?
History is great and all of that, but fantasy is a “what have you done for me lately?” type of game, so it’s worth noting that Porcello is on pace to have his best season since his rookie campaign. What piqued my interest in Porcello were his two most recent starts, where he totaled 19 (!) strikeouts in 12 2/3 innings, walking only two batters. Those 19 strikeouts represent the most that Porcello has totaled over a two start span in his entire career. Upon further investigation, there wasn’t a drastic change for Porcello over his last two starts, as his release point was largely consistent with previous outings, and the pitch usage was inconsistent between the two starts. So while there might not be a trend to note that caused the change over these last two starts (at least as of yet), we can look at Porcello’s season as a whole and see what changes he’s made because while his ERA looks right in line with his previous seasons, 2013 represents a drastic departure from the norm in other aspects.
To begin with, Porcello’s strikeout rate jumped from a meager 13.7 percent in 2012 up to 19.1 percent (just shy of league average (19.8 percent) thus far in 2013, all while maintaining a relatively stable walk rate under six percent. He’s established a career high ground-ball rate of 55 percent while keeping his GB:FB ratio above 2.00 for the second straight year. The question on every fantasy owner’s mind, of course, is whether this newfound ability of Porcello’s is sustainable or merely a blip on the radar. We can’t be entirely sure, but it would seem that it is indeed sustainable. You see, Porcello’s slider was an awful, awful pitch for him in 2012, accruing a -17.32 run value (per Fangraphs) when he threw it around 16 percent of the time (per Brooks Baseball). Thus far in 2013, he’s dropped his usage of the pitch down to 6.5 percent where it’s been worth about .75 in value. Per 100 pitches, that’s a 4.25 swing in value on the pitch alone. In addition to cutting down on his slider usage, Porcello has taken to throwing his changeup to right-handed hitters instead, and it’s helped him raise his strikeout rate against righties from 14.4 percent in 2012 to 23.2 percent in 2013. What’s interesting about Porcello is less the raw data than it is the concept. He’s been forced to essentially shelve the pitch that’s supposed be hardest on right-handed hitters in favor the pitch that’s best suited to attack left-handed hitters. And it’s working.
It’s possible Porcello’s strikeout outburst these last two starts is the result of facing Seattle and Chicago (AL) in September… in fact it would be foolish not to take that into account. That said, Porcello has clearly reduced the usage of his worst pitch while finding the same side change up to be effective in inducing whiffs. He’s not an elite performer by any means, but he is posting the best FIP of his career, and with a full season of Jose Iglesias behind him in 2014, there’s reason to believe he could see his ERA come closer to matching his FIP going forward.