Controlling Home Run Rates: What Doomed Rick Porcello in 2015, and Whether He Can Improve in 2016

If a towering home run off Rick Porcello on just the second pitch of today’s spring training game against Baltimore felt disconcerting, that’s because it should be.

A strained relationship between the former Detroit pitcher and Red Sox nation formed before Porcello ever threw a pitch in a Boston uniform. Even for a pitcher who had shown strides as Tiger the last couple of seasons, a substantial four-year contract at 82.5 million dollars did not seem like surefire positive move. Following that, Porcello underperformed, throwing his tenure in Boston into immediate question and greater scrutiny.

The notion of him having a poor season became very apparent in traditional stats, posting a 9-15 win-loss record and tied his worst single-season ERA mark of 4.92–far above his 4.39 career average and 3.43 ERA the prior year. Usually, these kind of stats, though most widely used, prove deceptive and misleading. Yet even with the more reliable fielding independent pitching metric, Porcello clearly had a poor pitching season: his 4.13 2015 FIP fell above his 4.04 average and above his three consecutive sub-4.00 FIP seasons beforehand. Capturing it all, Porcello experienced a negative 42.9 percent change in his WAR from 2015 to 2015.

A closer look at all his peripheral stats easily point to troubles with home run yield rate–and the characteristics of hits that lead to home runs–as the downfall of Porcello’s season in 2015. After all, he did give up his highest home run total in a single year with 25 in 2015, nearly six more than his career average.

Home run problems

hr-9 porcello

Source: FanGraphs.

As seen above in measuring his home run per nine inning rates across his career relative to a career average of 0.98, Porcello had his worst HR/9 rate of his entire life as an MLB starter in 2015 with the Red Sox (higher totals means more home runs yielded, a worse outcome). Moreover, his first season in Boston marked the largest absolute change in year-to-year HR/9 in his career as well, as his HR/9 swung greatly for the worse from 2014 to 2015.

hr-fb porcello

Source: FanGraphs.

Doing the same analysis for Porcello’s home run to flyball ratio–comparing with a 11.8 career average–offers a very similar picture. The pitcher gave up the most home runs as a percentage of his flyballs yielded during his seven-year career in 2015, though this most recent stat diverges less from previous single-season marks than does his 2015 HR/9 ratio.

Crucially, xFIP tells a very different story. This stat measures expected FIP and calculates it the same way as FIP except that home runs are 10.5 percent of fly balls induced–it estimates how many home runs should have been allowed in terms of league average home run rate. Porcello posted an xFIP of 3.72, just above his 3.68 mark the year before but much better than his career average of 3.85. In other words, this metric and comparison helps isolate Porcello’s propensity to yielding home runs in 2015 as the source for his broader, lackluster pitching.

Contact on pitches

quality of contact porcello

Source: FanGraphs.

The type of hits Porcello allowed also lend insight into his struggles. Harder hit balls not only more often fall for hits and extra bases, but also more likely end in home runs. Interestingly, Porcello allowed many more “hard-hit” balls–as opposed to medium or soft ones–in 2015. As seen in the above graph and table (with the key points towards the right hand side showing the changes in the 2015 season), Porcello experienced a 5.6 percentage point increase in the percentage of all batted balls that were hard-hit, the third largest year-to-year change among all three of the categories. This, along with the fact that it stands considerably above his career average of 26.7 percent, undoubtedly contributed to his home run woes; batters were making much harder contact with Porcello’s pitches than ever before.

Batting average on balls in play, the stat that notoriously fluctuates heavily and over which pitchers have little control, might explain some of Porcello’s struggles, but not many of them. At .332, his BABIP was above a .313 career average. This should indicate slightly worse luck with balls in play and defense behind him, but without a more sizable discrepancy between career and single-season numbers here, BABIP does not hold too much explanatory power.

Home ballpark effects

His decline also has little to do with the environment in which Porcello pitched. Across all MLB stadiums, some are more favorable to hitters than others, a notion quantified by park factors. Here’s the park factor rank in which Porcello pitched for the last seven years in terms of how favorable it was for hitters’ home run totals:

park factor rank porcello

Source: ESPN MLB Stats.

Given that a lower rank is more favorable to the hitter, there very clearly exists little difference in playing in Boston than playing Detroit for Porcello, as it pertains to one ballpark being more conducive to home runs for batters than another. If anything, Boston should have proved more advantageous in this respect.

Differences by pitch type

In terms of differences in pitch type, a few changes in Porcello’s pitching repertoire might have contributed to his struggles.

porcello pitch usage

Source: BrooksBaseball.

As seen in the above graph that compares pitch type usage in 2015 to his career averages for it, Porcello concentrated less on his sinker and more on his fourseam, cutter, and curveball. What’s more interesting is what type of hitting power–proxied by the isolated power (ISO) metric–opposing batters put up against his pitches, as shown below in this graph from BrooksBaseball:

porcello brooksbaseball

Source: BrooksBaseball.

Though using it at the same rate as in the past, Porcello yielded a much higher ISO to opposing batters on his changeup than before. This change marks the greatest one along his transition from Detroit to Boston, and thus holds the greatest significance in terms of the role of pitch type dynamics in Porcellos’ 2015 season.

Long ball issues, but strikeout improvement

The centrality of long ball struggles explains why several other key peripherals–not related to home runs allowed–did not prove indicative of a broader decline despite Porcello performing poorly overall. Though his walk rate did increase somewhat (but still remained below his career average), Porcello in fact put up the best strikeout numbers of his career: relative to both 2014 and his career average, Porcello experienced surges in strikeouts per nine innings, strikeout percentage, K/BB ratio, posting career-best across all these metrics in 2015. The importance of these underlying measures–of which home runs are a part–derives from their strong predictive ability for future success. So while declines in home run rates may herald future concern for Porcello in Boston, his numbers pertaining to strikeout rates signal improvement in the near future.

Accordingly, an average of projection systems from FanGraphs (under “Depth Charts”) predicts much better results for Porcello in 2016–namely, a 0.8 WAR increase to 2.4 from 2015, and importantly a 0.96 HR/9 mark, more in line with his career average and much better than his 1.31 ratio in 2015. In 2016 more than ever, Porcello’s ability to limit home runs hit off his pitches will heavily shape his performance on the mound.

All stats from FanGraphs.com unless otherwise noted.

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Lackey, Napoli Key Crucial Game 3 Victory

Lackey pitched a phenomenal game on Tuesday. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Lackey used his emotions to turn in a phenomenal outing. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

For the first three games of the American League Championship series, the margin of victory has yet to be greater than a run. And for the second game in a row, the Red Sox left with the better result after nine innings, edging their Tiger counterparts 1-0.

After looking to capitalize on its part last Sunday in one of the greatest Boston sports days in history, New England’s baseball team instead returned to its troublesome ways for the first six innings on Tuesday. Tigers superstar Justin Verlander stifled the Red Sox lineup in the first two-thirds of the game, yielding just two hits and a walk, while continuing Detroit’s strikeout onslaught with eight of his own.

Boston’s anxieties began to resurface, as its offense had posted goose eggs in 22 of its last 24 combined innings played. But after Jacoby Ellsbury shot a potential slump-breaking single into rightfield, the tides began to change. The centerfielder’s presence on the base path rattled the once-composed Verlander, as his base-stealing prowess forced the right-handed pitcher to nervously check the first base bag several times.

Though Verlander managed to eventually escape that sixth-inning, the damage was done. Ellsbury unnerved the seemingly untouchable pitcher just enough, to where Verlander threw a wild pitch—bouncing but a few feet from catcher Alex Avila—and allowed the first Red Sox player to grace an elusive scoring position. Thereafter, the feeling was palpable: Boston was itching for a run.

Napoli caught all of the baseball in go-ahead home run. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Napoli caught all of the baseball in go-ahead home run. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Enter Mike Napoli, who before his pivotal seventh-inning at-bat seemed like a walking strikeout (going 0-6 with six strikeouts prior). Unable to follow up on David Ortiz’s grand slam on Sunday night, Napoli batted right after Ortiz once again (who grounded out to start the inning), but without all the pressure.

Faced with a 1-2 count, Napoli uncharacteristically passed on two more balls thrown outside the strike zone, bringing it to a full count. And even more unexpectedly, Napoli smashed the next pitch he saw from Verlander into left-center that traveled 402 feet, landing with a little more room for comfort than Sunday’s game-turning bomb.

In accordance with the run-scoring ways of this tight series, Napoli was the last player on either team to cross the plate. But above all, Tuesday’s low-scoring affair had more to do with John Lackey than anyone else.

While game delays usually disrupt the creatures of habit that are pitchers, John Lackey reacted to the power outage at Comerica Park during the middle of the second-inning with a fervent rage. The right-hander, endlessly maligned during his pre-2013 tenure in Boston, exuded a fiery attitude throughout the rest of the game, most noticeable in inning-end outs and later a reluctance to be pulled by manager John Farrell.

The game was delayed for 17 minutes because the lights went out. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

The game was delayed for 17 minutes because the lights went out. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Lackey simply pitched mad, and in this case, he extracted the absolute best from his emotions. After the 17-minute delay, Lackey yielded just two more hits, fanning eight Detroit batters, before reliever Craig Breslow replaced him two-thirds through the seventh-inning.

It only took 97 pitches, but Lackey also dispelled a looming, larger-scaled fear for Boston through his fantastic outing in Detroit.

After having been embarrassed by Anibal Sanchez on Saturday en route to a decisive Tigers victory, the Red Sox had yet to face the actual daunting part of playing Detroit in a playoff series: its two-headed pitching monster of Max Scherzer and Verlander. The series was shaped around games featuring these two excellent starters; if Boston couldn’t take the must-win games that did not showcase Detroit’s top weapons, how could it possibly gain any leverage whatsoever in this series?

The growing distress out of Game 1 was initially quelled in the subsequent tilt—and just barely. Scherzer overpowered the Red Sox just as Sanchez had done the night before, but clutch hitting in the latter innings saved the team from the disaster of going to Detroit with two losses. The series shifted to Comerica Park with the Tigers having won at least one game at Fenway Park, but also having squandered a tremendous start by their ace in another.

On Tuesday, Lackey’s sublime performance finished off what David Ortiz & Co. started on Sunday: the process of regaining the edge in the series, without letting the Scherzer/Verlander combination dictate its fate. John Lackey fiercely out-dueled his pitching opponent, Verlander, who on most days would seemingly possess the clear advantage. The tables have now turned Boston’s way, and part one of Detroit’s ace-pitching show has been nullified.

August 21st- MLB Pointers

  • Ichiro stole the night on Wednesday.

    Ichiro stole the night on Wednesday.

    in light of Ichiro Suzuki’s 4,000th hit today, starting his total in Japan only slightly diminishes this unique feat; more than two-thirds came in the US, and aside from the MLB, Nippon Professional Baseball (Japanese) is one of the most competitive leagues in the world

  • the Red Sox reacted to previous disappointment as their starting pitcher did: after blowing a late-inning lead last night at AT&T Park, Boston bounced back to crush the Giants, while starter Felix Doubront, clobbered by the Yankees in his last outing, turned in a stellar performance–over 8 innings, he yielded just 6 baserunners and allowed only 1 run
  • in 8 innings of 1-run ball as well as striking out 7 Marlins, Zach Greinke further validated the Dodgers’ possession of two aces in their rotation; Los Angeles’ offseason free-spending is finally paying its dividends, as Greinke has won all 4 of his last starts, with a sparkling 0.96 ERA in that span
  • as the Cleveland Indians begin their charge into October (2.5 GB of the wild card), the emergence of Justin Masterson this season as a viable rotation leader is very encouraging even if a playoff spot becomes out of reach–with another victory against the Angels today (6.2 innings with 1 ER), Masterson improves his record to 14-9, enough to tie him for second most wins in the American League
  • the Atlanta Braves added to their MLB-leading win total, but they sustained yet another loss as well (coincidentally at Citi Field); with the timetable for Jason Heyward (fractured jaw) being four-to-six weeks, the ramifications of his injury could be severe, as the Braves will miss his offensive and defensive presence, or limited, as Atlanta’s 2013 success has not hinged so much on Heyward

MLB August 5th: Studs and Duds

Studs

Guthrie was cruising on Monday.

Guthrie was cruising on Monday.

Jeremy Guthrie– With all the laudatory talk surrounding Kansas City’s pitching staff lately, Guthrie proved all the newly-found believers correct. In a stellar complete-game performance, the number-three rotation starter punched out seven Twin batters, and yielded a mere five baserunners. This bumps the Roayls up to five games above .500, and though a playoff bid is optimistic at this point, stout pitching displays like Guthrie’s will key a late-season push.

Zach Greinke– By no means was it pretty, but against one of the best offensive lineups in the league, Greinke did enough to lengthen the Dodger’s hot streak (notably a 15th straight road win). With a WHIP well over 1.00 for the game, Greinke had to escape dangerous jams in the 3rd and 4th innings. And in containing the Cardinals’ offense during that time, LA was finally able to strike in the top of the 4th (smack in the middle of Greinke’s most pressing innings).

Justin Upton– The Braves outfielder is still trying to shake off some rust and return to early-season form. On Monday night, the moment of resurgence could not have come at a more suitable time. After hitting a 2-out single, stealing his way into scoring position, and then crossing home plate in the 5th inning, Upton’s true heroics came in the top of the 8th. Just a pitcher removed from facing Stephen Strasburg, Upton zipped a 382-foot home run into the leftfield bleachers off reliever Tyler Clippard as the first batter in the inning. This clinched the game for Atlanta, as well as enlarging its NL East lead to a cozy 13.5 games.

Duds

Mike Napoli– The Red Sox first baseman continues his recent horrid stretch, going hitless in 4 at-bats. And what makes him leaving 6 on base even worse is that it came against the lowly Astros. If any series would present a great opportunity for Napoli to get back on track, it would be the ongoing three-game set in Houston. Had Napoli delivered in such promising situations as seen in the 6th and 8th innings, the Red Sox could have potentially snatched a vital win as well.

Perez can only watch in dejection.

Perez can only watch in dejection.

Chris Perez– There’s simply no excuse for Perez’s 9th-inning debacle–especially in the comfort of his home field–and no way to soften the damage he has done. As a fairly reliable and established closer, Perez had the duty to close the deal in an all-important divisional game against the Tigers. Instead, in a span of 13 gruesome pitches, the Indian closer recorded no outs, and instead allowed Detroit to log in 4 runs on the scoreboard en route to stealing a victory. Cleveland could–and should–have been down only two games in the AL Central standings after tonight, as well as a tentative hold on an AL wild card spot. But Perez’s costly disaster proved otherwise: the division deficit is now four games, with no current grip on a playoff slot.

Andy Pettitte– How about a rude welcoming party for his fellow PED-user? In a game the villainous Alex Rodriguez shouldn’t morally be playing, his fellow drug policy-violator in Andy Pettitte did not exactly provide the best support from the mound: Pettitte allowed 7 earned runs on 11 hits and a walk, while failing to pass the three-inning mark. The grief keeps piling on in the Bronx (I mean they deserve it, right?), as a postseason push by the Yanks would require consistently efficient outputs from starters–what Pettitte put on display on Monday is the antithesis to their need.

Red Sox Third Base Dilemma

The left side of the infield has sparked controversy and uncertainty throughout this 2013 season for the Red Sox. Once thought a strong spot after Will Middlebrooks’ auspicious 2012 season, 3rd base has particularly become a concern, as 6 different Red Sox players have failed to properly fill the void. And when SS/3B Jose Iglesias packed his bags for Detroit as part of a pre-MLB deadline deal, the questions surrounding the third-base position have resurfaced once again.

After returning from a hamstring injury in mid-July, Stephen Drew has solidified his grip on the shortstop position as of late; his 2-home run game in Baltimore last Saturday has won the hearts of Red Sox nation for the time being. Boston will certainly not bet on Drew supplying the offense consistently, or even to continue his recent upswing, but his emergence brings at least some stability to the left side of the infield.

That leaves the young duo of Brock Holt–who was recently recalled from Pawtucket for the second time this year–and Brandon Snyder to split time at third base. The 26-year old Snyder has had limited success thus far, and might return to the minors soon. Holt, on the other hand, entertained a great stretch in the first half of July, to the point where his style and play drew comparisons to another hard-working Red Sock in Dustin Pedroia.

Bogaerts may be called up soon.

Bogaerts may be called up soon.

Holt was brought up to the majors as a result of the Iglesias trade, a curious choice by the Red Sox in part that they bypassed another viable option at third base: the Dutch speedster Xander Bogaerts. Many already believe it’s only a matter of time–weeks or even days–before Bogaerts gets called up. He’s been hitting .279 during his time with the PawSox, with 8 home runs, 24 RBI, and 23 runs, while hitting for better numbers in his earlier stint in Double-A.

Yet his own manager, Gary DiSarcina, believes Bogaerts would benefit by staying a little longer at the minor league level, as there’s still more room to develop before making the jump to Boston.

Nevertheless, we’ve witnessed several players under the age of 22 make the leap unorthodoxly early in the last year or two. Guys from Mike Trout to Yasiel Puig have flourished from the get-go, and have exhibited precocious developments of starpower. Regardless, even if the 20-year old struggles, optioning him back to the minors creates no extra burden.

The Red Sox may not have a comfortable situation in dealing with third base, but they’re certainly not at a lack for options. As the team looks to both retain their current rate of success and continue to improve, letting a burst of energy in Xander Bogaerts tag along the ride would be a clever move, if not simply a reasonable shot.

The Complex of Confidence: Boston Red Sox 7/5

When Mike Napoli smacked an unnecessary homer into deep-center on Friday night, it swiped a save opportunity away from Red Sox reliever Koji Uehara.

Uehara barely missed out on a save on Friday.

Uehara barely missed out on a save on Friday.

Considering all the uncertainty and frustration surrounding Boston’s closer situation this year–the one weak link–and the fact that Uehara had converted on 4 of his last 6 save chances, just an addition to a stat total would be immensely beneficial to an area desperate for hope. Confidence in the closer role–whether in the eyes of manager John Farrell or Uehara himself–is not necessarily wholly defined by a simple change in a statistical category: quality of performance, which cannot be factually measured, is always more telling. Yet the Achilles’ Heel that is the reliever corps for the Red Sox must seek a boost from any way possible, even if that means attentiveness towards the boxscore.

Napoli's home run certainly broke his recent streak of frustration.

Napoli’s home run certainly broke his recent streak of frustration.

So when Napoli increased Boston’ lead to 4 runs, the opportunity for recording a save flew out of the window for Uehara. But if to further abide by this path of scratching out confidence, the home run may be more a blessing in disguise, despite eliminating a potential “lift” for Uehara.

After batting in runs like no other hitter in the AL, and eclipsing any expectations set forth in the preseason, Napoli has undoubtedly experienced a slump in the last few weeks. The 440 ft bomb to center against the Angels marked his first homer since June 1st, comprising a drought for the slugger that lasted over a month. Nearly all his major statistical numbers have endured a steady decline from a month-to-month basis as well.

Yet as we see too much in sports, an insignificant occurrence such as blasting a home run that merely stretched a lead by one run, could serve as an essential boost in confidence–one lift that Napoli could use to build upon, and revitalize his sinking 2013 season.

In conclusion, while a chance to augment confidence in one area may be lost for the time being, an opportunity taken in another dimension may prove valuable beyond a statistical measurement.

What’s Giving Boston Sports a Ray of Hope? Red Sox Pitching Consistency

It hasn’t been pretty for Boston sports fans over the last ten days.

The passionate fanbase has suffered crippling blows to three of its major sports teams. The tragedies have been wide-ranging, from a deflating championship defeat, to the departure of defining franchise figures, to even reports about several, horrendous crimes concerning one football player.

So what appeared would be a summer full of optimism and eagerness—as is most commonly attributable to Bostonian teams—quickly came crashing down.

Yet somehow a positive sign remains in the Boston sports scene: the team thought least likely to bring about hope in its season—the Red Sox—has surpassed all expectations.

This resilient baseball club has fought to overcome constant scrutiny and past hardships, as well as numerous problems on the baseball field. By having the best record in the American League at the midway point in the season, the Red Sox serve as the lone bright spot for a sports-crazed city searching for answers.

The encouraging signs first came from the top of the pitching rotation: Clay Buchholz (5-0) and Jon Lester (4-0) guided the overlooked Boston team to a .692 winning percentage in the month of April. The successful start for the two starters continued on into May as well, as the Red Sox won 17 of the 22 starts Buchholz and Lester made combined.

But the month of June hasn’t been as kind to the resurgent two-headed monster of the Sox pitching staff. While Lester has gone 2-2 with a ghastly 7.62 ERA, the true ace in Buchholz had his CY Young-caliber start cut short due to neck/shoulder issues—he’s spent the last nine days on the DL and has started just two games this month.

So how are the Red Sox—who weren’t necessarily built to contend this season—still 3.5 games clear of their next AL East rival, despite recent struggles to their main pitching options?

Pitchers from the rest of the rotation have simply stepped up and efficiently filled in the gaps. Take John Lackey, Ryan Dempster, Felix Doubront, and Alfredo Aceves for example.

Lackey has slowly gained the faith of Red Sox nation.

Lackey has slowly gained the faith of Red Sox nation.

Lackey, who seemed like the most hated athlete in the city just a year ago, has a contributed a sublime effort. Coming off Tommy John surgery last season, Lackey has allowed more than 3 earned runs just twice in his 13 total starts, as he’s held his total ERA just under 3.00 so far. And though he hasn’t had too much run support in 2013, he has a 2-0 record since Buchholz went on his DL stint, and has steadily increased his strikeout totals and decreased his walks allowed.

Ryan Dempster, the number 3 starter in the Boston rotation, has also been excellent making up for the decline of Lester and absence of Buchholz. All five of his outings in June have been quality starts, and although only recording a win in three of those games, has rebounded nicely from rough showings in May.

Alfredo Aceves—the fiery, unpredictable pitcher—has succeeded in all three of his last fill-in starts dating back to late May. Aceves lasted no more than 6 innings in any of his replacement efforts, but has only yielded 1 earned in each of the three starts. He perfectly filled in the voids in the Red Sox pitching staff, as he gave Boston wins in each of his three starts as well.

Perhaps Felix Doubront has performed the best as of late, albeit going unnoticed. The Venezuelan, in his 4th year, has posted a 2.73 earned run average in June, and has not allowed more than 3 ERs in any of his 5 starts. Doubront, like the other pitchers, has played a huge part in picking up the slack for the Boston rotation.

The commonality between all four of these pitchers is that they all stepped up the quality of their games once Buchholz and Lester had their struggles, a jumpy from mediocrity displayed in previous months: their ERAs have all hovered around 3.00, and were instrumental in keeping the Red Sox a top team in the league.

The overall pitching consistency—sustained by these four, mostly underappreciated starters—has not only given the Red Sox a chance at the playoffs, but has given Boston sports fans hope.