The Boston Red Sox have given the ball on Opening Day to their only holdover from 2014, Clay Buchholz. After breaking down the lean righthander’s fastball and his overall repertoire, Ian York reviewed the data on former Detroit Tigers righthander Rick Porcello.
For the graphics that follow, recall that the favorite color of pitchers everywhere is blue, and the darker the blue the better the results for the defense. Conversely, any circles of red are better for the fielding team if they are small and faint. Measuring average total bases per pitch for pitches that were not balls (in 2014, about 0.321 as calculated from PITCH/fx), blue and red circles show results below or above this baseline:
(FT-Two-Seam Fastball, FF-Four-seam Fastball, CU-Curveball, CH-Changeup, SL-Slider)
Porcello had fairly even splits against RHB and LHB, with the latter performing only slightly better against him. His curve to RHB was very effective on a per-pitch basis, and both curve and changeup (“CH”) drew a number of swings on pitches below the bottom of the strike zone, but his primary pitches are the four- and two-seam fastball.
He showed a preference for attacking RHB with two-seam fastballs and utilized four-seam fastballs to LHB, with both yielding neutral, or just slightly worse than average, results per pitch. His four-seamers, averaging in the low 90s, tend to end up over the heart of the plate, middle/middle, but he managed to avoid very hard contact. This is probably because his two-seam fastball, which starts out looking very similar to the four-seam for the batter, moves dramatically and differently, making it difficult to predict where any individual pitch will end up.
Here are animations of all of his 2014 four- (FF) and two-seam (FT) fastballs:
Though Porcello is a groundball pitcher (25th in the majors, with a GB% of 49.1%), you can see that he doesn’t rely on placing his pitches at the very bottom of the strike zone; rather, his deception and pitch mixture probably means that batters often hit over the top of his sinking two-seamer when expecting a straighter four-seam.
This also helps demonstrate a general point, which is that simply because we see a pitch being effective doesn’t mean it should be used more often. Only rarely are individual pitches so good on their own that they can be thrown over and over to major-league batters and maintain their effectiveness. Most pitchers have to rely on deception and mixing their pitches to keep batters from timing the offering.
Another thing to remember is that in these charts we’re only asking about a pitch’s effectiveness when it is not a ball. It is equally important to actually throw strikes, and that’s something at which Porcello has excelled. He rarely walked batters in 2014, with the 13th-lowest BB/9 rate(1.74) in the majors last year among 87 qualifying starters. What’s more, Porcello’s groundball tendency let him induce many double plays; he ranked second in the majors for most GDP in 2014, with 30.
Throughout his 6-year major-league career, Porcello has been just about an average pitcher (career ERA+ of 98). Of course, the Red Sox hope that his pitching style translates well to Fenway Park ‒ having signed him to an extension before throwing a pitch ‒ as well as the expected strong infield defense, and that 2015 Porcello will be more like the version who posted an above-average ERA+ of 116 in 2014.