Rick Porcello’s struggles

Ace. Bona fide number one starter. Comparable to Josh Beckett. Fast forward to the present, and Rick Porcello has not lived up to the praise he received as a top pitching prospect. Now he is caught in a limbo of sorts—is he a developing young ace, or a number four or five starter?

Drafted 27th overall in the 2007 first year player draft, Porcello commanded what was then the largest bonus ever given to a high school player. He would have been drafted higher if not for his exorbitant contract demands.

In his first year in the minors he was very impressive but with one red flag. Against far more experienced players in High-A, Porcello posted a 2.66 ERA and a FIP of 3.83. He used a heavy sinker and developing off-speed and breaking pitches to neutralize opposing batters.

His big flaw—which is still a problem today—was his inability to rack up strikeouts. Despite purportedly excellent stuff and command, he only struck out 5.18 batters per nine innings thrown in the lower minors. The lack of whiffs was dismissed; Porcello was just aggressive, inexperienced.

In 2009, he was given the following scouting report from MLB.com as the No. 4 overall prospect:

Scouting report: Porcello throws both a two-seam and four-seam fastball…both of which can reach the mid-90s with regularity, although the four-seamer is a bit faster. The heavy two-seamer has plenty of life down in the zone and induces ground balls.

His curve improved in 2008 and could become a swing-and-miss pitch. He has a good feel for his change-up and can throw it in any count. Though he has a slider, he didn’t throw it in 2008. He possesses excellent command, particularly of his fastball, to both sides of the plate. Makeup, poise and mound presence are all off the charts.

Upside potential: Ace, All-Star, Cy Young candidate, you name it. He’s been compared to Roy Halladay, Justin Verlander, Roy Oswalt and Josh Beckett.

Promoted to the majors later that year, as the youngest player in the majors, Porcello managed a very solid xFIP of 97, meaning that he was better than average by three percent in terms of expected FIP. His rookie year performance was promising, if not impressive. Unfortunately for Porcello, he has not progressed since that point, posting near identical xFIP figures.

He also appears to be a pitcher who consistently underperforms his fielding independent pitching statistics. In over 500 career innings, the differential between his ERA and xFIP is 0.36 due to a poor strand rate.

Looking for potential through PITCH-f/x

Overall, he is a pretty similar pitcher to when he made his debut; he still relies heavily on his two-seam fastball, but a little less heavily than before when he used to throw the pitch over 75 percent of the time . He has increased his slider usage and now throws the pitch about 20 percent of the time. He uses the curve much less than before, and his change-up usage has been pretty consistent. Here is what his repertoire looks like now:

image

This is a graph of the movement of Porcello’s five pitches: four-seam (FF), two-seam (FT), changeup (CH), slider (SL), and curveball (CU). The color indicates velocity, and the size of the points indicates the usage of the pitch.

As you can see, he throws his two-seamer most often and occasionally tosses in a curveball. Classifications are a mix of Gameday’s and the output from clustering analysis. In terms of movement and velocity, his two-seamer is very, very, average, as are the rest of his pitches. In this way,his repertoire is similar to his overall performance—ordinary.

While his stuff is nothing special, it’s possible that he can improve his approach. MGL hypothesized that he was throwing his sinker in a sub-optimal locations:

I have never seen any of his Pitch-f/x data, but I would bet that he throws his sinker too far up in the zone, on the average, compared to other sinkerball pitchers.

So I looked into this, and compared the distribution of the pitch height of Porcello’s sinkers to the league’s sinkers:

image
It turns out that the pitch height of his sinkers is pretty much identical to that of the league, where by “league” I mean a random sample of 5000 two-seamers/sinkers thrown by right handed pitchers in 2011. The two dotted lines represent the vertical borders of the strikezone.

What did seem strange to me, though, is the frequency of his four-seam fastball. Why does he throw it so often (a little above 20 percent)? It’s not a pitch that gets very many groundballs or whiffs, so it really does not seem to be effective on its own. Were he to replace all of his four-seams with two-seams, his groundball rate would likely be significantly higher, and he would not be sacrificing very many swings and misses.

Of course, it is possible that his other pitches are benefited by his throwing a four-seam fastball, but I do not think that is very likely. And even if that were true, I would think that he could decrease his four-seam usage down to around five or 10 percent and retain the effect. It’s also a pitch that he throws to both lefties and righties, so this is not a platoon matchup kind of pitch, either.

Overall, Porcello is a pretty solid pitcher. He is never going to be a Beckett or a Halladay, but he may very well develop into a solid middle-of-the-rotation innings eater. If his career is disappointing, that’s probably the fault of our own ridiculous expectations, and not any failure of his.

References & Resources
*PITCH-f/x data from MLBAM via Darrel Zimmerman’s pbp2 databse, and scripts by Mike Fast/Joseph Adler/Darrel Zimmerman.

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Comments

  1. Dan said...

    Josh – just pointing out the slight absurdity of writing off a young pitcher of never being Roy Halladay when he has a very similar pitching style and better career numbers at the same age.

    Is Halladay’s career unlikely?  Of course. But if Porcello can command his pitches a little better and get a slight uptick in K rate, he’s going to be throwing exactly the same stuff that Halladay was.

    Never write off an extremely young pitcher that has already had some MLB success.  It’s unlikely Porcello becomes a star, but you can say that same thing about nearly every other 22 year old pitcher in the majors/minors.

  2. Dan said...

    “Overall, Porcello is a pretty solid pitcher. He is never going to be a Beckett or a Halladay, but he may very well develop into a solid middle-of-the-rotation innings eater. If his career is disappointing, that’s probably the fault of our own ridiculous expectations, and not any failure of his. “

    It might be a bit early to write off his career as a middle of the rotation innings eater and nothing more.  He’s in his age 22 season.  You say he will never be a Halladay type pitcher, but Halladay himself had a K rate around 5 in his age 22 and 23 seasons in MLB.  In fact, from age 25 through 30, Halladay’s K rate never above the 5s and 6s in terms of K/9IP.  He got by by limiting HRs and with very god control.

    So far in his young career, Porcello has improved his FIP every season.  He’s done this by gradually improving his BB rate and HR rate, while mildly improving his K rate.  If he can continue to improve (mostly by limiting HRs and BBs), his K rate will likely be high enough for him to be a successful pitcher.  Maybe not quite a #1, top of the rotation stud, but it’s way too early to write him off as nothing more than a middle of the rotation innings eater.  Especially when his career compares favorably to Roy Halladay at the same age.

  3. Jeff said...

    I dunno. I looked at pitchers in the league right now who are younger and have a better track record of success than 3 league average seasons in terms of FIP- and xFIP- (which is still very impressive for a 20-22 year old) and all I could come up with in my admittedly-halfarsed study was MadBum and Pineda.

    It’s doubtable he’s reached anywhere near his ceiling at age 22 (where most pitching prospects are in high-A), but it seems that his floor is a #3 innings-eater.

  4. Josh Weinstock said...

    Dan,

    Halladay has had a pretty unique career I’d say, so I’m not sure if there’s any value in comparing Porcello’s career to Halladay’s.

    Porcello has improved his FIP every season, but the run environment has also gotten much lower, so he’s basically performed the same in terms of FIP compared to the league average. (FIP- of 106 (2009), 102 (2010), 99 (2011)).

  5. Jeff said...

    (Obviously, because Pineda hasn’t pitched for three years to meet that “criterion”, I was pretty vague in my requirements of what is a better record of success.)

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