Normally, when a player breaks into the league before he’s of the legal drinking age, it’s because the organization has great expectations. Eventual MVP winners Bryce Harper and Mike Trout were both 19 years young in their debuts, as was the 2010 Cy Young Felix Hernandez. Last season, Boston saw a budding star in Rafael Devers rake his way onto the scene as a baby faced 20 year old.
So when the Tigers slotted 20 year old Rick Porcello into the fourth spot in their 2009 rotation at season’s start, it wasn’t because they expected him to put up a 4.30 ERA over six unspectacular seasons. The tall right hander was thought to be an anchor of the rotation for years to come. Instead, he became a piece in the Yoenis Cespedes trade with the Red Sox after averaging 12.5 wins per season in Detroit. What perplexes me is why they would give up on a guy coming off of his best year to date. He’d just set a career high in wins, complete games, shutouts and innings. While simultaneously posting career lows in ERA (3.43) and BB/9 (1.8).
Which is why I wonder why Detroit so easily parted ways with the New Jersey native, shortly after turning 25.
Perhaps Dave Dombrowski was just trying to get a return for the pitcher before he walked in his free agent year, but that doesn’t make any sense; he was under control for another full season, and acquired for Cespedes, who was in his walk year. That was also a lineup which featured Miguel Cabrera, Ian Kinsler, and Nick Castellanos to go along with J.D. and Victor Martinez, so they weren’t in desperate need of a slugger. The people of Detroit may not have been enamored with their outfield as it was constituted, but that could have been remedied without moving on from a still-young rotational mainstay.
On Boston’s end of the spectrum, Porcello was hardly addressing a need. The Sox had made an egregious error following their 2013 championship campaign, as contract talks with their proven number one Jon Lester fizzled, following a lowball offer of $70M. Knowing he had lost Jon (and the ’14 season) for sure, Ben Cherington made a pair of deadline deals sending Lester to the A’s for Cespedes, as well as John Lackey to St. Louis. After a forgetful Bobby Valentine-led year, the Sox were left scrambling for starters in the 2014-15 offseason. This ultimately led to the Yoenis-Porcello trade, which was accompanied by a pair of underwhelming signings in Justin Masterson and Wade Miley. All while ensuring that career National Leaguer Joe Kelly would have a spot in the 2015 rotation after arriving in the Lackey deal.
Things hardly improved from there. Without ever throwing a pitch in a Sox uniform Boston gave Rick an 80 million dollar extension, which made him the de facto number one starter. Porcello responded by putting together a 9-15 season, set a career high in ERA (4.92), gave up 25 homers, and allowed 10.3 H/9. In fairness, sinkerballers tend to give up a few more hits than flame throwers like Chris Sale. And Boston wasn’t exactly setting the former Tiger up for success, with a limited Pablo Sandoval at 3rd, an injury prone Dustin Pedroia manning 2nd, and the aging Mike Napoli holding down the first base bag.
After struggling through his 2015 campaign, Rick spent a vast majority of 2016 working with battery mates Christian Vazquez and Sandy Leon, both of whom are defensive minded game callers. He had just 26 innings to work with Leon in ’15, and had never thrown to Vazzy. So with a fresh start, the solid catching corps, and Travis Shaw supplanting Panda at 3rd, Porcello was given a clean slate. He put together a Cy Young winning campaign, but with one strange caveat: the pitcher failed to earn a nod in the All-Star game.
Why wasn’t Rick an All-Star? His numbers simply weren’t dominant in the first half, nor were they at season’s end. Porcello finished 5th in WAR, coming in behind Carlos Quintana. He wasn’t in contention for the ERA crown either, being outdone by Aaron Sanchez, Masahiro Tanaka, Justin Verlander and Corey Kluber. Despite having a 22-4 record, his winning percentage wasn’t even an A.L best. On top of that, Porcello failed to lead his own team in complete games, starts, or strikeouts. Not exactly an impressive campaign considering the hardware he took home.
Lester himself has never brought home a Cy Young, but he’s a 3x World Series winner, and a proven playoff commodity who endeared himself to Red Sox Nation.
Yes, a Cy Young is a Cy Young. You don’t win one by accident, nor do 22 victories just fall in your lap. He was equally dominant on the road (0.9 WHIP, 117 IP) as he was at Fenway:
13-1 (16 GS) / 2.97 ERA / 13 BB / 89 K
The strong armed backstops held the opposition to just one stolen base, and the defense delivered for the starter too, ranking third in the A.L. in both defensive efficiency and fielding.
On his worst days Pork is a gamer and an innings eater. But last season saw him give up a league high total in hits (236) and homers (38), leaving fans questioning which version of Porcello we’ll see.
With the dust finally settled, Boston doesn’t have a lot to show for their maneuvering of Lester and Lackey. Just a failed starter in Kelly, a .139 hitter in Allen Craig (who “earned” 30 million bucks in Boston), and the enigmatic Porcello who’s coming off his worse season ever. This might not be the best time to mention he holds a miserable playoff track record: 0-3, with a 5.47 ERA.
The nine year veteran’s Jekyll and Hyde act is becoming par for the course. His paltry 2017 sadly stands to be closer to the norm for Rick. You can’t pin all 17 losses he suffered on him, but his 4.65 ERA is less than half a run above his career average. I think the Porcello we saw in 2017 is closer to what we can expect from him through his contract year in 2019.
The former first round selection is capable of putting together a more than respectable season, as he’s done in 2009, 2014, and 2016. Could he channel his motivation into a decent year? Maybe. But with his unreliable postseason history smack dab in the middle of a rotation that features very little playoff pedigree, my concern is that Rick Porcello is going to be a $21.25M number four starter, in a division that features the top power bats in baseball.