Rick Porcello: your 2016 American League Cy Young Award winner. I don’t think anyone could have predicted that. He finished the season with a 3.15 ERA, a 1.01 WHIP, and an unprecedented 22 wins (26 quality starts). Those numbers, along with 189 strikeouts, earned him a final ranking of seventh on Yahoo, sixth on the ESPN player rater, and second in CBS points leagues among starting pitchers. Not bad for a guy who more than likely was plucked off waivers to start the season (NFBC ADP of 326).
For fantasy purposes, Porcello has been a solid source of double-digit wins throughout his career, but that is about it. Prior to 2016 he had just one season you can classify as fantasy relevant; that was in 2014. On average he was good for an ERA in the low-fours, a 1.30 WHIP, and a K/9 well below replacement level. He was on a number of sleeper lists after that 2014 season, and those that took a chance on him were highly disappointed.
So how did he go from being a late-round gamble and waiver wire streaming option to one of the best pitchers in the American League? To be honest, I’m still trying to figure that out.
There was no change in his arsenal; it is still the same four-pitch mix from previous years. There were a few variations compared to 2015, but overall his usage was similar to years past. The velocity was down at least one mile per hour on all four of his pitches compared to last season. He had a positive rating for three of his four pitches (the curveball rated as a negative pitch). The fastball (13 runs above average) and changeup (10 runs above average) went from being average (at best) offerings to elite. Even the slider, which has been a negative pitch for his career, finished at eight runs above average.
The contact rate went up despite the better results, both inside and outside the zone. Last year’s 82.9 percent contact score ranked in the bottom-10. In fact, his contact rating has been in the bottom-20 in every season except for 2013. Looking at the Pitchf/x data, that contact is up across the board on all four pitches. I thought I would see some change in one or two of his positive pitches, but that was not the case. Considering the swing rate was a career-high 48 percent I’m surprised the contact rate wasn’t higher.
Since there was no change in the arsenal and the contact increased, there has to be something to support his 2016 season in the batted ball data, right? Well, there was a huge spike in fly balls, up 5.5 percent from last year and 8.4 percent over his career line. Despite the additional fly balls, his HR/FB ratio ranked as the third-best among qualified starters. The ground ball rate dropped for the third straight year, from 55.3 percent in 2013 down to 43.1 percent. Finally, the line drive rate was below 20 percent for the first time since 2011. The amount of soft contact continues to drop while the hard contact has been above 30 percent the past two years.
His strikeout rate stayed unimpressively solid with a 7.63 K/9. With a swinging strikeout rate that has ranked in the bottom-20 for his entire career, this will not change. He did get ahead in the count more often this year with a first pitch strike rate of 64.2 percent. This is one area he has excelled in, and not just this year. Porcello is good at getting ahead of the hitter, but this has mainly favored his walk rate. Last year’s 1.29 BB/9 was a career-low, and second to only Josh Tomlin among qualified starters.
So what did Porcello do differently in 2016? Absolutely nothing! He had several increases in areas that should have resulted in an average-to-poor season. Somehow, though, Porcello turned in a career-year. His ERA may have been 3.15, but the xFIP and SIERA say that number should be closer to 4.00. His .267 BABIP was lucky and about 30 points below what we usually see from him. Maybe he’ll keep some of those gains; with a solid team behind him we finally saw an acceptable strand rate. Unfortunately that’s the only thing we can count on.
I don’t know about you, but I’m getting that Phil Hughes feeling. Much like Porcello, Hughes is a low-walk, low-strikeout, high-contact pitcher. While some of the underlying metrics may differ, their surface stats through the years are eerily similar. Hughes came out of nowhere in 2014 to put up a career year, and everyone put him on a pedestal heading into 2015. That’s when Cinderella turned back into a pumpkin. Something tells me Porcello’s 2017 season will meet that exact storybook ending. There is a difference between a career-year and a breakout. This was a career-year – nothing more.
A best-case scenario is Porcello puts up numbers similar to his 2016 first half (3.66 ERA, 1.17 WHIP). That’s not bad, but as a ceiling it is not great. He’s not the number three/four fantasy pitcher people are currently viewing him as. Porcello’s value is at its peak, and his recent Cy Young Award win is your golden ticket. If you were planning on moving Porcello, do it now while that win is still fresh on people’s minds. If you wait, or hesitate, and Porcello gets off to a rough start, you’ll have missed your window of opportunity.