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Prospect Retrospective: Rick Porcello

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How Boston Red Sox playoff starter Rick Porcello rated as a prospect

Baltimore Orioles v Boston Red Sox Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

Today the Boston Red Sox sent right-handed starter Rick Porcello to the mound against Charlie Morton and the Houston Astros in the 2017 American League Diviusion Series. Porcello was a top prospect as a minor league pitcher and while it took him some time to find his footing in the majors, he eventually blossomed into the 2016 American League Cy Young Award winner. Here’s a look at his development as a prospect and where he fits into context.

A high school pitcher in New Jersey, Porcello was rated as the top prep arm in the 2007 draft according to most experts. He fell to the 27th overall pick due to his bonus demands, but the Detroit Tigers were able to sign him, albeit too late to pitch that summer. Here is his report entering 2008 explaining why scouts liked him so much.

The consensus was that Porcello was the best high school pitching prospect in the ’07 draft, but the West Orange, New Jersey prep fell to 27th overall due to his bonus demands. The Tigers got him to sign late, but they did get him to sign, and he is now the top prospect in a farm system gutted by offseason trades. Porcello is athletic and lean, but not thin. His fastball hits 97 MPH on a good day and is consistently in the 92-95 range. His curveball, slider and changeup are all above average for a high school pitcher. His command, control and pitching instincts are all rated very highly. Scouts say he has a few mechanical issues to iron out, but no major flaws. Like all young pitchers he carries injury risk, but the upside is quite high. Grade B+ until we see some performance data, but if he lives up to clippings he’ll be higher than that soon enough.

The Tigers sent Porcello to Lakeland in the High-A Florida State League to begin his pro career in 2008, quite a jump from New Jersey. He put in a very impressive campaign, posting a 2.66 ERA in 125 innings. He gave up just 33 walks but collected only 72 strikeouts. Nobody seemed too worried about that and scouting reviews were very positive, leading to this report entering 2009:

The most advanced high school pitcher in the 2007 class, Rick Porcello did nothing to change his ranking as an premium talent with a very strong season in the Florida State League in 2008. Quite young and inexperienced for the level, he nonetheless led the league in ERA while greatly impressing scouts. He has a 90-95 MPH sinking fastball, and his changeup is highly advanced given his age. He was on a strict pitch count limit, and the Tigers also told him to concentrate on improving his curveball over his slider, which was supposedly his key strikeout pitch. These two points are used by the Tigers to explain why his strikeout rate was low last year, and indeed the only real red flag in the numbers is the K/IP. How important is that? Strikeouts are a huge indicator of future success for young pitchers, perhaps the most important one of all. But at this point, I am willing to cut him some slack on that issue. He was young for the level, his control was fine, the scouting reports are glowing, and the 2.48 GO/AO ratio takes some of the worry out of the low strikeout rate. Not all of the worry, but most of it. I’ve gone back and forth between A- and B+ on this grade, but given the complete package I will go with a Grade A- right now. He’s an elite prospect, but he seems more like a Brandon Webb or Carlos Zambrano style pitcher to me, not a Josh Beckett.

The Tigers had no hesitation, jumping Porcello directly to the major leagues in 2009 as a 20-year-old, skipping Double-A and Triple-A. He more than held his own considering the circumstances, going 14-9 with a 3.96 ERA, 114 ERA+, and coming in third in Rookie of the Year balloting. A caution sign was a set of mediocre component ratios in the strikeout and hit departments, but again, considering the circumstances, it was a highly-promising debut.

Detroit Tigers v Minnesota Twins
Rick Porcello, 2009
Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Then it got tougher. Porcello’s ERA rose a full run in 2010 and he needed a quick refresher with four Triple-A starts. In 2011 he settled in as a pretty good but not dominant starting pitcher, posting fWAR values of 2.2, 2.8, 2.9, 2.8 through 2014, steady and consistent and an asset to the staff but regarded by many as somewhat disappointing given the hype he got as a prospect.

He was traded to the Red Sox and slumped in 2015, going 9-15, 4.92, with a 1.6 WAR the worst since his rookie season.

2016 was much different: he went 22-4, 3.15 with career-best 142 ERA+ and 189 strikeout marks, zipping up to 5.1 fWAR and winning the Cy Young Award. Alas, he’s been more human in 2017, going 11-17, 4.65, leading the league in losses and hits allowed and posting a 2.0 fWAR. This is very reminiscent of his 2010-2015 performances.

Porcello now has nine major league seasons under his belt, going 118-99, 4.25 ERA, 101 ERA+, 22.5 fWAR in 1672 innings. In aggregate he has been a slightly above-average starting pitcher. When he’s going well (as he did in 2016) he can be dominant but he gets blown up just often enough to keep his ERAs hovering around league average most of the time.

Sim Score comparables include Rick Reed, Moose Haas, Paul Byrd, Vicente Padilla, Bob Walk, Jon Garland, Brett Myers, Alex Fernandez, and Yovanni Gallardo. If Porcello’s career ended today with 1672 innings, his fWAR value of 22.5 would be in the neighborhood of Haas (22.7), Ellis Kinder (22.6), Bill Swift (22.5), Andy Ashby (22.4), Larry Christenson (22.3), and Ramon Martinez (22.2) among pitches with a similar number of innings pitched.

Like most of the comparables, he hasn’t been the year-to-year ace starter scouts expected, but Porcello has been quite valuable overall.