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Why Rick Porcello became a different kind of pitcher

Rob Bradford
August 20, 2018 - 7:54 am

Monday night the last two American League Cy Young Award winners will face off at Fenway Park.

You've probably become familiar with last year's honoree, Cleveland's Corey Kluber. He offers an intimidating image, usually thanks to a bunch of strikeouts. Last year the righty -- who lives in Massachusetts during the offseason -- fanned 265 batters, the second-most in the American League. That was 11.71 strikeouts per every nine innings pitched.

The other guy? Rick Porcello. He might not be quite as familiar to those still identifying him with his 2016 Cy Young season. The Red Sox starter has evolved into something else, something that is resembling more of what Kluber represents -- a strikeout pitcher.

"I feel like I have to be like that just to stay where I’m at and give us a chance to win," Porcello said in a conversation with WEEI.com.

While you might not have been paying attention, Porcello is no longer just a guy who throws the ball at the bat, with the idea of getting batters to get themselves out by pounding the pitches into the ground. He is now striking batters out at a higher rate than even Kluber, heading into Monday having fanned 8.9 batters per nine innings, double his rookie season rate.

It's not an accident.

"How I attack guys is probably the biggest adjustment that I’ve made," Porcello explained. "I’m throwing more off-speed stuff. I throw a lot more four-seamers to lefties. In ’15 and ’16 I threw more two-seamers, especially early in the count. The end result of all of that for starting pitchers similar to myself who don’t have Chris Sale/wipeout-type stuff the pitch-mix is huge. If you try and pitch deep into games, primarily with your fastball, it might keep your pitch count low but you might be giving up a bunch of runs, particularly home runs. I think I’ve tried to make the adjustments I have felt that are necessary to make. 

"The responsibility of a starting pitcher now is a little bit different. The games where you go out there and you go seven or eight innings and you give up five runs, those games don’t matter anymore. Nobody is putting value into pitching eight innings to save the bullpen even if you take a loss. We’re in a situation where we have to win every night and that’s why I have thrown so many off-speed pitches and thrown more to the swing and miss rather than the contact I have in the past. I’m trying to keep as many runners off base and runs off the board as possible. If they don’t put the ball in play there is no opportunity to create anything."

Porcello's analysis of how the game has changed is spot-on.

There has never been a season that has seen the strikeout rate turned in by American League pitchers to date, with A.L. hurlers averaging 8.47 punchouts per nine innings. (Starters are coming in with a strikeout clip of a historic 8.12 strikeouts-per-nine.) It has necessitated changes.

"It’s the approach. You see a lot more teams who are being aggressive," Porcello said. "Teams are looking to score off the starting pitcher. When I first came to the big leagues your bullpen had one or two guys, but the rest of the guys were very hittable. The starting pitchers were generally the best pitchers on your staffs. That isn’t necessarily the case. Teams are looking to hit the starter because there are six guys in the bullpen throwing 95-plus or have wipeout breakout pitches and you don’t necessarily want to see those kind of arms coming in. It leads to a more aggressive approach to hitters early. The best hitters are hitting first or second in the lineup. They aren’t hitting fourth. You aren’t hitting your power guy in the five- or six-hole, leaving them down in the lineup to drive in runs. You’re trying to get these guys to the plate as much as possible so they can do what they do and get their swings in. That leads to an unwillingness to attack the zone with fastballs by the starting pitcher.

"I throw my fair share of first-pitch fastballs but I was damn careful."

In each of the past two seasons, Porcello threw some sort of fastball 59 percent of the time. This season the rate is 10 percent lower. It's not a coincidence. Across Major League Baseball starters are offering up heaters five percent less than a year ago. As is the case with the Red Sox righty, most know that the get-me-over fastball is a thing of the past. 

Strikeouts have become the lifeblood of pitchers, a reality that even a sinker-baller like Porcello has embraced.

"It’s just led to the evolution of pitching and starting pitching," he said. "I believe there can be a balance that you can be aggressive with fastballs throughout the game. You just have to be even more dialed in when those opportunities are. You definitely have to take advantage of them because you can’t just go out there and throw (expletive) all day because that doesn’t work either. There still has to be a certain amount of respect for the fastballs from the hitters.

"A lot of it has been my natural development. I didn’t really know how to throw breaking pitches when I got to the big leagues. Eventually with time after getting hit around a little bit I started learning how to throw breaking balls. Now I feel out of the necessity of what we’re trying to do every night, which is win ballgames, I’m going to throw 110 pitches in six innings but it means we’re going to win the game. I would rather do that than throw 110 pitches and give up four runs and go eight and we lose."

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