Opinion

Finding Rick Porcello’s fatal flaw in 2017

A case study: Rick Porcello and the third time through the order penalty

Featured image courtesy image of Zimbio.com: (June 27, 2017 – Source: Adam Glanzman/Getty Images North America)

Rick Porcello is an enigma of sorts. When he first arrived on the scene with the Boston Red Sox in 2015, he was pretty bad. Then, in his second season in Beantown, he was literally the American League Cy Young. In 2017, he followed this stellar campaign by being pretty bad again. We can all hope the right-handed pitcher keeps up this A-B pattern, reverting to the performer he was just two short years ago.

Unfortunately, this is an arbitrary pattern, obviously. The fact we are in a “B” year has no actual bearing on how Porcello will pitch in ’18. Still, this pattern of inconsistency has rendered the 2007 1st-round pick a huge question mark for Boston. What kind of pitcher is he, really?

Well, it is pretty safe to say he is not the Cy Young award pitcher we glorified in 2016. The 3.15 ERA he compiled in 223 innings that campaign is a bit far from the career 4.25 ERA he owns. Plus, the repeatability of the 5.1 fWAR he put up has always been dubious. He has never even surpassed 3 fWAR in any other season in his nine-year career.

I mean, the guy’s .269 BABIP (batting average on balls in play) in ’16 had to be alarming to the masses. Starting pitchers averaged a collective .298 BABIP in the same season. Porcello, himself, owns a career .309 BABIP. All of this is just a fancy, statistical way of saying Rick Porcello was the beneficiary of good fortunate in his career-year.

As such, it is not terribly shocking that the 29-year-old experienced regression in 2017. What is shocking, however, was the extent of regression he faced.

His ERA dropped from 3.15 in ’16 to 4.65. We all know that is not a good thing.

In the same span, Porcello’s HR/9 (homeruns allowed per 9 innings) elevated from a respectable 0.93 to a dreadful 1.68. Meanwhile, his GB% (groundball percentage) fell to a career-worst 39.2%.

For a pitcher who is more-or-less known for suppressing hard contact, yeah, those numbers are not too savory. Truthfully, the hurler’s “real” fatal flaw in 2017 was the diminished effectiveness of his fastballs, both his four-seam and his fairly renowned sinking fastball. According to Fangraphs’ pitch values, Porcello’s fastball score went from a high-caliber 13.0 (17th-best among qualified starters) in 2016 to an abysmal -14.7 (6th-worst among qualified starters) in 2017.

His fastball lost its gusto and, consequently, he was a shell of his former self. Porcello’s struggles with his heater (and sinking heater) last year have been discussed ad nauseam among pundits and fans alike. At the very least, I feel like it has. For the sake of avoiding redundancy, I will not speak of it any further. Just know that was probably his main issue in ’17.

With that said, Rick Porcello “struggled” in another weird way last year and no one is really talking about it. The BoSox 2017 Opening Day pitcher had a very precarious relationship with the third (and first) time through the order penalty.

If you are an avid baseball fan, you most likely have heard of the “third time through the order penalty.” If not, I will try to briefly sum it up.

Basically, a couple of years ago, people began to discover that starting pitchers performed demonstrably worse facing hitters for the third time in the game. This makes intuitive sense when you consider the pitcher is more exhausted the deeper he gets into the game and hitters have seen him two times already, so they are more accustomed to his stuff. It is part of the reason you are seeing starters pulled from the game earlier than ever before.

Anyway, that paragraph, while filled with logical sentences, is purely anecdotal at this juncture. To make the anecdotal not anecdotal, I have proof in the form of a table! Within this table, you will find how AL pitchers performed in 2017 each time through the order.

IP ERA AVG SLG wOBA
1st Time 13097.2 3.86 0.243 0.408 0.311
2nd Time 5209.1 4.94 0.263 0.455 0.334
3rd Time 3161.1 5.46 0.265 0.455 0.335

The devil is in the details. Or, rather, in the hefty spikes in ERA as pitchers face the order more frequently. If you want a table of just starting pitchers, then here is a table I got from Fangraphs’ Travis Sawchik in his post ‘Chris Archer Has Some Questions About the Future of Pitching.’

Starting Pitchers by Times Through Order in 2017

PA AVG OBP SLG OPS Batters Faced
1st .250 .315 .417 .731 43,603
2nd .265 .331 .448 .779 42,324
3rd .272 .338 .463 .801 27,565

Anyway, you get the point. Pitchers are progressively worse as they face the lineup more times. The logical conclusion is backed up by the numbers. The Earth can continue to spin on its axis. Conceptually, I have been enamored with the “third time through the order penalty” for some length of time. After I read Sawchik’s piece on Archer, I started thinking about it again.

Naturally, I began scouring Fangraphs to see if there was anything interesting with the Red Sox and this penalty.

I was looking to see how often, relative to other teams, the Red Sox got to the face the batting order for the third time. The 255 innings they logged against the third time through the lineup was the third-most in all of baseball and led the American League in 2017. That is worth an article, alone. Maybe one day.

I was, then, driven by curiosity as to which Boston pitchers contributed to that hefty number.

Of course, Chris Sale‘s 62 innings against the third time through the order was tied for the league-lead. My thought process was as such: the better the pitcher, the higher the likelihood they would pitch more innings against the third time through the lineup. Makes sense, right?

While that hypothesis still may hold true, there is an “anomaly” tied with Sale for that spot and his name is Rick Porcello, the subject of this post (it all connects. I love organic unity).

The man with the 4.65 ERA pitched 62 innings against the third time through the order in 2017. Admittedly, that is a tad jarring. You do not need me to tell you that. I suppose since he was one of the small handful of pitchers to surpass 200 innings last year, it should be less surprising than I am making it out to be.

Still, the guy was not very good and was thrust into disadvantageous situations constantly throughout the year. Is that managerial malpractice? I mean, maybe. Actually, probably. What are you doing, John Farrell?

Even though I can already somewhat confidently say Porcello should not have faced as many batters the third time through the order as he did, it is very important to contextualize this information. In other words, what were his results facing hitters different times through the lineup?

Consequently, we need a hero to save the day. Can you guess who that hero is? Why, a table, of course! Within this fresh table, I will show you how Porcello has performed each time through the lineup in 2016 (his good year) and in 2017 (his bad year). The contrast in the numbers should be revealing.

IP ERA FIP K-BB% wOBA
2016 1st 71.1 3.03 3.29 19.2% 0.298
2017 1st 66.1 5.16 4.21 18.2% 0.362
2016 2nd 75.1 3.94 2.75 19.9% 0.372
2017 2nd 68.1 3.95 4.65 15.2% 0.339
2016 3rd 66.1 2.58 4.07 13.4% 0.260
2017 3rd 62.0 4.79 5.06 11.1% 0.340

Obviously, the results from ’17 should be significantly worse than in ’16. He was an inferior pitcher, after all. Still, the difference between years, results-wise, from the first and third time through the order are notable.

Oddly, Porcello’s ERA facing the batters for the first time was higher than it was opposing the third time through the lineup last season. I would ascribe this to bad luck more than anything. His  4.21 FIP facing the first time through the batting order was markedly better than the 5.06 FIP against the third. Putting it another way, the unsightly 5.16 ERA was probably driven by the unsustainable .365 BABIP he compiled opposing the lineup for the first time in ’17.

Regardless, Porcello struggled early in games and had the tendency to find a better version of himself the second time through the lineup last year. His ERAs were virtually the same, in ’16 and ’17, the second time around the batting order. Granted, the underlying stats suggest he was considerably worse last season than the season prior. This should not be shocking considering Porcello was just not as good of a pitcher.

Despite the difference between his 2016 and 2017 performance against the first time through the batting order, I am more struck by the discrepancy between those same years with the third time through.

Vintage Porcello (Cy Young Porcello) pitched even more innings the third time through than 2017 Porcello. Plus, he did so with vastly superior results. His 2.58 ERA in that span was the fourth-best among pitchers with at least 40 innings against hitters the third time through the lineup. Yes, this was partially driven by batted ball luck, but it is a far cry from the pitcher he was in ’17 against these batters.

Even if the difference in statistics are more of a testament to the simple fact Porcello was not as good last year, the issue remains readily apparent. Why was he asked to pitch in these inopportune situations when he was clearly yielding poor results? Boston had one of the better bullpens in baseball last year. I am sure they would have been able to shoulder the load more effectively.

Sure, it is a good to have an innings eater. Further, it is quite possible the reason the Red Sox’ bullpen was so good was because they were well-rested. I will say, however, it appears Porcello was mismanaged. If Farrell had taken him out earlier in the game, his numbers would not look as bad. More importantly, the Red Sox would have been maximizing their asset. This would have put them in a better position to win games.

Rick Porcello remains an enigma for the Boston Red Sox. No one really knows what to expect from him in 2018. If Boston is being efficient, though, we should not be seeing Porcello at the top of the innings leaderboard against batters the third time through the order again. Unless, of course, he returns to Cy Young Rick Porcello. At that point, be my guess. Just do not count on it. Instead, hope that new mananger Alex Cora is more pragmatic with his pitching staff.

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