By Matt Dolloff, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — David Price hijacked the headlines with his postgame outbursts on Wednesday night, but it was Rick Porcello who was actually on the mound for the Red Sox. And in case you missed it, his problem with giving up home runs continued to rear its ugly head.
Porcello is now 3-8 with a 4.46 ERA, the 16th highest among American League qualifiers, after allowing five runs in 6.1 innings on Wednesday night at Yankee Stadium. His eight losses are the most in the league. He allowed two more home runs and has let up four longballs in his past two starts after allowing zero in his previous two. Mookie Betts robbed the Yankees of a potential third home run (a second for Carter) with a spectacular leaping catch in the sixth inning.
The reigning Cy Young winner has taken a step back so far in 2017, and much of it has to do with his propensity to give up home runs. But are his struggles to keep the ball in the ballpark a real regression and a mark of who he really is as a pitcher, or simply a matter of bad luck?
On Wednesday, and over the course of the season, it was a little of both.
Porcello admitted to reporters after the game that on one of the two home runs he allowed, to the Yankees’ Chris Carter, the pitch “stayed up and flattened out” as Carter crushed a 91 MPH fastball out of the park. But on the other home run to Didi Gregorius, Porcello believed he made a good pitch and Gregorius simply hit it with a better swing.
“I tip my hat on that one,” said Porcello after the game, speaking to WBZ NewsRadio 1030’s Jonny Miller. “I’ve made a lot worse pitches than that that didn’t get hit. It was a changeup down and away, and Didi put a good swing on it. I don’t consider that one a mistake.”
The pitch to Gregorius caught more of the plate than Porcello may have realized at the time, but it was still not the easiest pitch to hit completely out of the ballpark. It was emblematic of a season in which hitters have been good against Porcello, but also lucky.
Porcello has now allowed 14 home runs on the season, the fifth-most in the American League. He’s 10th in homers allowed per nine innings with 1.56. That rate has skyrocketed from 0.93 last season. He has an alarmingly high rate of “hard” contact against him, posting the highest percentage in the AL at 42.2 percent, according to Fangraphs.
However, despite that league-high hard contact rate, the overall contact against Porcello has actually taken a slight dip from last season, from 82.9 percent in 2016 to 78.9 percent in 2017. His overall flyball rate is only up 3.2 percent from last season. Despite the high home run total, there are 21 pitchers who have given up more home runs per flyball than Porcello’s 13 percent.
The biggest indicator that hitters have had some measure of good fortune against Porcello is his .361 opponents’ batting average on balls in play (BABIP); a zero-sum BABIP would be in the .290-.300 range. BABIP does not account for home runs, but turn a few of those homers into doubles and the number goes up anyway.
Porcello’s BABIP in his Cy Young season was .269, indicating that he had some good luck, so some regression should have been expected. But in 2017, the pendulum has swung wildly in the other direction. Porcello won’t make those kinds of excuses, though; he knows he still needs to be better and more consistent than he has.
“It’s just execution of pitches. That’s what it always comes down to,” said Porcello. “You make good pitches and guys get hits, you can live with that. But in crucial times, when you’ve got to bear down and locate, I haven’t been very consistent with that and I need to get better.”
It will be interesting to see what kind of results Porcello can deliver if and when his opponents’ BABIP normalizes. But there’s no doubt that when guys have hit the ball against him, they’ve hit it hard almost half the time and he needs to keep the ball in the park more than he has. Most importantly, Porcello says he’s not pressing and remains focused on being better moving forward.
“No, not at all,” said Porcello when asked if he’s pressing. “This is a hard game. You’re going to go through ups and downs. You’re going to have some struggles that you’ve got to come out of. I’m working towards that right now. Obviously, I’m not happy with the way I’m performing. But you’ve got to take it all in stride and turn the page for the next one.”
Matt Dolloff is a writer/producer for CBSBostonSports.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect that of CBS or 98.5 The Sports Hub. Have a news tip or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.