John Harper, SNY.tv | Twitter |
Countering launch-angle hitting with high fastballs has become all but mandatory for pitchers in the big leagues these days, as dictated by analytics departments and pitching coaches. But it doesn't work for everyone.
It most certainly didn't work for Rick Porcello in 2019 when he posted a 5.52 ERA, by far the highest in his career, at least partly because he threw the most four-seam fastballs of any season in his career.
Can he get back to being more of the sinkerballer who has been a solid-to-above-average starter for much of his 11-year career?
The Mets are counting on it, after signing Porcello to a one-year, $10 million deal on Thursday.
"The feeling is he got a little out of whack trying to pitch away from what has always been his strength -- his two-seamer," one person associated with the Mets told me on Thursday. "He's a cerebral guy who might have bought into the analytics and tried to get more swings and misses, but he probably needs to go back to being more of a sinkerballer who gets a lot of ground balls."
With that in mind, the Mets aren't necessarily expecting dominance from Porcello. He's never really been that type of pitcher, though he did win the AL Cy Young Award with the Red Sox in 2016, going 22-4 with a 3.15 ERA.
And while Porcello isn't old, at age 31, he's thrown 2,037 innings in the big leagues. That's partly because he broke in with the Tigers at age 20, and more so he's been remarkably durable, missing no more than a handful of starts in any of his 11 seasons.
So the Mets would be happy to have him slot in the back end of the rotation, make 30 starts next season, and pitch to something around a 4.00 ERA, going six or so innings per start while keeping the Mets in games most of the time.
"He's very capable of giving the Mets a solid season," one long-time scout said Thursday. "But I would agree he needs to get back to doing what he does best, which is pitching down in the zone.
"He doesn't need to live down there exclusively. He has a good spin rate on his four-seamer that can create deception at times, but it's a pitch he needs to make hitters chase upstairs when the count is in his favor. He probably threw it too much last year and he gave up a lot of home runs because of it."
Yes, Porcello gave up 31 home runs last season, the second-highest total of his career, but he's always given up a lot of hits per inning. More significant, then, is the hard-hit percentage of balls in play against him being 37.2, the highest of his career.
"Part of it was he made too many mistake-pitches with his breaking stuff too," a second scout said. "He's always been a guy who gets hit hard when his stuff's not crisp, but I do think he got a little lost last year. Maybe he was trying to pitch to what their analytics were telling him, but it wasn't really working."
For the first time in his career, in fact, Porcello threw more four-seamers than two-seamers -- 31.6 percent vs. 24.9 percent. And this was a guy who threw more than 50 percent sinkers early in his career, and 40.6 percent as recently as 2016, the year he won the Cy Young Award.
"Nobody wants to pitch to contact anymore because strikeouts are so available, especially if you can throw the high fastball," one of the scouts said. "And Porcello gets hurt by contact at times even when he's down in the zone, but that's still the way he needs to pitch, trying to keep the ball out of the air and in the ballpark."
Porcello still managed to go 14-12, or earn more wins than Jacob deGrom, because the Red Sox scored a lot of runs for him. But toward the end of the season, after getting bombed in consecutive early-September starts by the Twins and Yankees that raised his ERA to 5.83, he decided enough was enough.
Relying more heavily on his sinker, he finished the season with three solid starts, giving up five runs over 17 innings while allowing only one home run.
Indeed, in those three starts, he threw only 31 four-seamers vs. 107 sinkers -- 11.9 percent vs. 41 percent. Or pretty much the opposite of the way he'd pitched to that point.
"I felt good pitching more like I always had," he told reporters at the time.
Was it a late-season aberration or an indication of what Porcello can do in the years ahead by embracing his signature pitch again?
The consensus among people I talked to is to give Porcello the benefit of the doubt because they give him high marks for his competitiveness and his pitching intellect.
"I think he tried to take advantage of the launch-angle swings like everybody else and found out it's not the best way for him to pitch," one scout said. "I think he'll be better next year."
Clearly the Mets believe it as well.