How Did Rick Porcello Pitch Differently During His Cy Young Season?

Rick Porcello has pitched for the Red Sox for two seasons. In one of those (2015), he was mediocre at best (9-15 win-loss record, 4.92 ERA, 4.13 FIP, 87 ERA+); in the other (2016), he was excellent (22-4 record, 3.15 ERA, 3.40 FIP, 145 ERA+) and won the AL Cy Young award. The question this year is, which of those pitchers will Rick Porcello most resemble?

Porcello reached the major leagues in 2009, at the tender age of 20; coming into 2017, even though he has already started 241 regular-season games, he is only 28 years old – just about an average pitcher’s prime age. Since 2010, Porcello has consistently improved year-by-year in terms of ERA, FIP, and ERA-, with WHIP showing a less consistent, but still positive trend:

Looking at these trends, 2015 shows up as a strong outlier, with 2016 falling neatly in line with the ongoing trends of his career. So both Porcello’s age and his ongoing trends give grounds for optimism that his 2016 may be more in line with future production than his 2015.

Porcello has generally been very consistent in his pitch usage for the past four years, after increasing the use of his curve in 2013:

Comparing 2015 to 2016, the main difference we can see is that he used more four-seam fastballs in 2015 compared to 2016; his usage in 2016 was more in line with his previous years. Other than that, he generally used the same pitch repertoire to left- and right-handed batters, when ahead and behind in the count.

All of Porcello’s pitches were more effective in 2016 than in 2015. Looking at total bases per 100 pitches, and comparing to the average value for each pitch in 2016, Porcello’s curve returned to the excellent levels of 2012 and 2013, after being just a little better than league average in 2014 and 2015. Similarly, his slider improved significantly after two off years, although it was still slightly worse than average. His two-seam fastball didn’t change much, but did improve, also to just about league average. The biggest difference was in his changeup, which was among the most improved pitches from 2015 to 2016 – mainly because it was absolutely awful in 2015, with an off-the-scale value of 18.1 total bases per 100 pitches (I have cut the chart off at 15 here, so it’s true horror is partially hidden). From 2015 to 2016, Porcello’s changeup improved by 8.5 TB/100, down to a better than average 9.6 TB/100:

In the past few years, Porcello has dramatically changed the movement on his pitches, especially his curve. We can look at total break, and horizontal and vertical movement, on each of his pitches since 2012. The dots are sized proportionate to their usage:

Note how much separation there is between the four-seam and two-seam fastball in terms of velocity and movement. Also, note how much Porcello has slowed his curve velocity – a good 5 mph slower since 2012, while at the same time gaining extreme vertical and horizontal movement. In fact, in 2016, only two right-handed pitchers who threw at least 100 curves (Jesse Hahn and Adam Wainwright) had more horizontal and vertical movement combined than Porcello. (Porcello is the red dot in the chart below.)

Porcello also reduced his changeup velocity significantly between 2015 and 2016, from an average of 82.6 mph in 2015 to 80.7 mph in 2016. This may have given him better control, since his changeup location in 2016 looks much better than it did in 2015. In the following chart, the grey polygons indicate the de facto strike zone for each year:

In most of his seasons, Porcello has effectively targeted his changeup at, and just outside, the edge of the strike zone – down and outside to left-handed batters, down and inside to righties. In 2015, this seems to have slipped, and his changeup was much more likely to be well inside the strike zone. In 2016, this seems to have been corrected and the changeup was again right on the edge of the strike zone.

While looking at locations, also note how much the location of his four-seam fastball has changed over the years. In 2016, Porcello mainly used his four-seamer to get strikes at the top of the zone.

Overall, Porcello made several significant adjustments between his mediocre 2015 and his excellent 2016: He continued with the ongoing changes to his curve velocity and movement, making it a highly effective pitch; he corrected his changeup location, making it a very good pitch after being terrible in 2015; he used his four-seam fastball less, but more effectively, as a strikeout pitch at the top of the zone. While it may be too much to hope for another Cy Young-caliber year for Porcello, it seems reasonable to hope that he will continue his ongoing trend toward excellence that was disrupted by 2015.

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Featured image courtesy of Dale Zanine/USA TODAY Sports.