Is Ricky Pretty Again?

In 2016, Rick Porcello won the American League Cy Young award. He finished the year with:

  • 223.0 IP
  • 3.15 ERA
  • 7.63 K/9
  • 1.29 BB/9
  • 0.93 HR/9

Justin Verlander and his wife Kate Upton famously did not agree with the voting panel on this.

Anyway, Porcello was pretty good and collected the right amount of votes in the right places to win the award.

In 2017, Porcello had a bad year. He finished with:

  • 203.1 IP
  • 4.65 ERA
  • 8.01 K/9
  • 2.12 BB/9
  • 1.68 HR/9

He went from Cy Young, to Pie Young (I know, I’m working on it).

Now we’re in 2018 and Porcello is 0.3 fWAR away from matching his 2017 total of 2.0 fWAR. So what’s happened? How can he be Cy Young, bad, then pushing towards domination again?

The graph above compares O-Swing, Z-Swing, O-Contact and Z-Contact from 2016 to today in a 15-game rolling period.

Quick explanation on some terms – O-Swing is swings batters made outside the strike zone. Z-Swing is the opposite, swings inside the strike zone. O-Contact is contact made outside the strike zone and Z-Contact is — wait for it — contact inside the strike zone.

So, back to the graphs, Porcello isn’t getting a huge difference in his numbers when it comes to contact and swing in and outside the strike zone. So what has changed?

Contact has changed and boy has it changed in the right direction. He’s getting 2016 levels of medium and hard contact, meaning less chance of those hits going over the wall or for extra base hits. The soft contact is sneaking up as well. The proof is in the stats, here’s Porcello’s recent HR/FB%:

  • 2016 – 9.3%
  • 2017 – 14.7%
  • 2018 – 7.4%

The balls simply aren’t clearing the fences as much as before. So what has Ricky done about his pitch selection? Is he reverting to 2016 pitch mix?

If we concentrate on 2016 and 2018 seasons for now, he’s not matching his Cy Young year at all. In fact, we can see his fastball rate is way down. Just 46.5% of his pitches, the lowest of his career by some margin. He’s up on his slider by 14%, cut back on the curveball and relying much more on his changeup (especially compared to 2017), back to 2013 numbers in terms of usage. So Porcello seems to be following the trend of other pitchers, relying much less on his fastball and trying many more breaking pitches instead. He also has increased the velocity (the numbers in brackets) in his breaking pitches, with his slider being the fastest it has been for some time.

If you prefer pretty graphs compared to tables, here’s one from the excellent Baseball Savant. The change is obvious and dramatic.

So thats settled, he should continue to ditch the four seam fastball and concentrate on breaking balls, right? Wrong.

When he does use his four seam fastball, he’s getting a large amount of swing and miss inside the zone. Maybe the sudden drop in fastball usage is causing hitters to struggle, this probably won’t hold out for too long as they realise that Porcello is doing this. Expect hitters to sit on and wait for the fastball in future.

What about some of the other stats? His Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) is way down at 2.74, the lowest for his career so far. It also puts him 9th in the Majors for current qualified starters. His Batting Average on Balls In Play (BABIP) is .284, putting him way down the list of starters in terms of “luck”. When it comes to BABIP, anything around .300 is “normal” above that you’re deemed to be unlucky, below .300 and you’re lucky.

The top three starters in BABIP at the moment are:

  1. Bartolo Colon .199
  2. Sean Manaea .205
  3. Justin Verlander .205

One of those names doesn’t belong there and maybe that needs another blog post.

His last two starts haven’t really followed the stats and information we have seen here, but if he can switch it round and get that medium and hard contact down from those two starts, we could see him get back on track. I’m not saying he’s going to get back to his Cy Young days, but everything is pointing to him being a solid number 3 this season.

So yeah, I think Ricky is pretty again.

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