Opinion

Can Rick Porcello keep this up?

Can Rick Porcello keep this up?: Rick Porcello has been one of the best surprises of the 2018 season, but how sustainable is his performance?
Featured image courtesy of Zimbio.com (Adam Glanzman/Getty Images North America)

The 2018 Boston Red Sox were always going to go as far as their starting pitching could carry them. Entering the season, the plan was for Chris Sale and David Price to be a ferocious 1-2 punch, with the remaining three starters being solid, but nothing exceptional. However, there’s been a pleasant surprise to that plan after three turns through the rotation. Rick Porcello has been absolutely dominant, and appears to have recaptured his 2016 Cy Young form. Can Rick Porcello keep this up, or will he fade away as the season rolls on. There’s no way to definitively know, but let’s take a look at the data and see what history suggests.

The third ace on the roster: Can Rick Porcello keep this up?

What history suggests

Porcello’s Red Sox tenure has been filled with incredible peaks and valleys. The righty was one of the worst starters in baseball in 2015, and was below average in 2017. And in 2016, he won the Cy Young. Normally, players return to their career averages after short bursts of success, but Porcello doesn’t have an average. Thus far with the Sox, he’s been either dominant or subpar.

This isn’t to say that there’s no value to studying Porcello’s career trends. Right now, Porcello is off to the best start of his career, including 2016. In 19.2 innings, Porcello boasts a 1.83 ERA, with a .192/.213/.247 slash line. These numbers are downright fantastic. Compare these to his 2016 stats, when he owned a 2.76 ERA with a .200/.250/.375 slash, and it’s clear he’s never been better.

However, what does a typical Porcello year look like? Does he normally come out of the gate hot and tail off, or does it take him a few turns through the rotation to find his form. Thanks to Fangraphs, we know the answer. Throughout his career, Porcello owns a 5.11 ERA with a .277/.321/.446 slash line in March and April. In all other months, Porcello has a 4.07 ERA with a .273/.319/.421 slash line.

The ERA drastically decreased, but his slash line numbers only improved slightly. This implies that Porcello is essentially the same pitcher throughout the duration of any given season. This trend holds true when analyzing his 2016 season. After April, Porcello posted a 3.22 ERA with a .233/.271/.365 slash line. Again, nothing notably different from his 2016 April numbers.

Historically speaking, there’s no reason to believe Porcello is riding a hot start. Throughout his career, he’s never had an April that didn’t reflect the type of season he was going to have. While he probably won’t finish his season with a 1.89 ERA (that’s borderline impossible), there’s no historical evidence to suggest Porcello’s early run is a fluke.

What analytics suggest

ERA and the slash lines are fine tools for getting a quick evaluation of a pitcher, but they don’t tell the whole story. Context needs to be added to determine how sustainable these types of numbers are. Has Porcello been inducing weak contact? Has he been getting lucky with balls in play, or has a great defensive outfield been taking away runs?

First, let’s take a look at his fielding independent pitching, or FIP. This stat basically evaluated what a pitcher’s ERA would be if he had a league-average defense behind him. This obviously isn’t a perfect stat, but it’s a good way to sense if a pitchers defense has been saving or ruining his season.

So far, Porcello owns a 1.69 FIP, per Fangraphs. This number is actually less than his 1.83 ERA, but just barely. Basically, this tells us that Porcello’s performance hasn’t been artificially inflated due to great fielding behind him. If anything, the defense has been subpar, and actually made Porcello’s stats worse than they otherwise would be.

Another key statistic that shows Porcello’s luck is batted balls in play, or BABIP. Basically, a strikeout is an out 100% of the time, and a home run is a hit 100% of the time. Everything else relies on luck, and BABIP tallies up that luck. A batter can launch a line drive, but if they hit it right at a fielder, it’s an out. Conversely, a batter can hit a weak dribbler, but if it finds a hole, it’s a hit. Traditional statistics don’t measure this type of data, but it’s certainly relevant to determining how a pitcher performs.

So far, Porcello has been very lucky with BABIP. Through his first three starts, Porcello own a .250 BABIP, which is well below the league average. As the season continues, this number will likely increase, as Porcello’s luck returns to the norm.

However, how much will it increase? Porcello is at his best when he’s inducing soft ground balls. Because of this, his BABIP should naturally be lower than the league average. The question now becomes, what kind of contact has Porcello allowed through his first three starts?

We can go deeper: Porcello’s contact rates

Porcello’s BABIP is going to increase, that’s only natural. However, if Porcello can induce weak contact and ground balls, his BABIP won’t drastically increase, and his overall numbers shouldn’t be greatly affected. Let’s see what type of contact Porcello’s allowed to earn that impressive BABIP number.

Every pitcher in the league wants to induce ground balls on contact, and Porcello has excelled at that through his first three starts. So far, 51.8% of Porcello’s balls in play have been grounders, one of the best rates of his career.  For a pitcher that relies so much on ground balls, this number is highly encouraging.

Additionally, batters have not been hittng Porcello hard. Fangraphs tracks contact rate, and so far batters have only made hard contact on 23.2% of batted balls in play. This is an absurdly low rate, and implies that Porcello is consistently dominating his pitching matchups.

Historically, there’s no reason to suggest that this is a hot start. Porcello, for better or worse, has typically been the same pitcher in April as he’s been the rest of the year. The statistics also back this up. Porcello’s FIP is lower than his ERA, meaning that his numbers aren’t inflated by his defense. He’s consistently causing weak contact for ground balls, which means his .250 BABIP isn’t as lucky as it originally appears.

Essentially, all measurable data implies that this Porcello is here to stay. He’s re-captured his 2016 form, and will probably remain one of the best starters in the game. With Sale and Price before him in the rotation, this could be the best 1-2-3 punch in all of baseball.

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