The Boston Red Sox have started decently despite some particularly mediocre pitching. The bats carried the team through April, however, there was one pitcher who did his job in the first month of the season. Ian York take a look at the hot start for Rick Porcello, and the success he carried over from the end of the 2015 season.
Rick Porcello had two seasons in 2015: One that was pretty bad, for his first 20 games, and one that was shorter but pretty good, for his final eight games of the season after he returned from the disabled list. His improved results corresponded with a number of objective changes in his pitching, which made for an optimistic outlook for his 2016 season – if he could maintain those changes.
After five games in April, that optimism looks justified. Porcello is 5-0, with a 2.76 ERA, and has pitched at least 6 innings in each of his five starts. What’s more, the changes he made after his DL stint in 2015 have carried over into 2016.
He cut back on the use of his four-seam fastball, which he was overusing to start 2015, and made up the difference with his highly effective sinker (“FT”, for two-seam fastball, according to PITCHf/x) and his changeup. That has continued, with his four-seam usage dropping still further (down to 14% of all pitches) and his sinker comprising over half his pitches (54.1%):
(These pitch types have all been re-categorized manually to correct PITCHf/x’s errors.)
He also improved the separation between his four-seam and sinker. In the first part of 2015, these pitches smeared together, perhaps because he was overthrowing his sinker. In the last eight games of 2015, and even more so in 2016, he has done a much better job of separating the pitches into distinct clusters based on velocity and movement:
The velocity separation in particular has continued this season. In the first part of 2015, about 1.2 mph separated his four-seam and sinker (only approximately, because the two pitches smeared into each other so much it was impossible to clearly divide the two groups). In the last eight games of 2015, the separation was a full 2 mph, and this year so far there is a difference of 2.3 mph. Except for his four-seam fastball, his other pitches have also slowed down in step with the sinker.
Porcello’s location also improved in the last eight games of 2015, with his four-seam consistently targeting the top of the strike zone and the two-seam hitting the bottom. Although it is a little early to be mapping out his locations this year, he seems to be showing the same trend in 2016.
Most of Porcello’s pitches have improved effectiveness, based on total bases per 100 pitches. It’s probably a small-sample-size curiosity, but so far this year, Porcello’s changeup has been extremely effective, drawing a very high number of swinging strikes and very few hits (19.4 swinging strikes and 3.2 total bases per 100 pitches):
He increased his usage of the change in the second half of 2015, from 7.8% to 14.6%, and continues to throw a relatively high proportion in 2016 (12.0%), but that comes from just 62 of his 516 pitches so far.
In particular, his sinker is about as effective as it was in his run of good games last year and significantly more so than in his ineffective first 20 games. His four-seam fastball has also yielded good results. His slider in 2016 has had poor results per 100 pitches (21.4 TB/100), but that is also just on 56 pitches so far. It is important to note that these pitches can’t be judged in isolation; his slider may not be effective alone, but it probably makes the curve and changeup more effective by forcing batters to distinguish between the three pitches.
In his first five games this year, Porcello is averaging 9.9 strikeouts per 9 innings, far higher than his career average of 5.9. As a sinkerball pitcher, who relies to a large extent on getting outs on weakly hit balls, it seems unlikely that he will maintain that rate. However, somewhere between 7 and 8 SO/9 seems realistic; his last three full seasons were 7.2, 5.7, and 7.8 SO/9.
While he will undoubtedly have some poor outings this season, he now shows every sign of being the pitcher Ben Cherington extended with an 4-year contract for $82.5M. If he can stay even close to this level, he will easily be worth it.
Ian York uses the PITCHf/x to monitor the strike zone, highlights great performances, monitors league-wide trends and tracks the performances of some interesting young hitters.
Follow Ian on Twitter @iayork.
All data compiled from PITCHfx and Baseball-Reference.com.