John Harper, SNY.tv | Twitter |
Looking back now at where it all went wrong for him last season, Rick Porcello is convinced he made a mistake in trying to adapt his style of pitching to what baseball's new technology was telling him -- and what the Red Sox were encouraging him to try.
Based on the spin rate and spin efficiency of his pitches, as measured by the high-tech Edgertronic and Rapdoso cameras that are commonplace in the game these days, Porcello was told he should be using his four-seam fastball to attack hitters high in the strike zone.
Such strategy has also become commonplace as a way of counteracting the launch-angle swing so many hitters now employ, often leaving them vulnerable to the high fastball.
However, Porcello, who signed a one-year, $10 million contract with the Mets in December, had always been primarily a sinkerballer, relying on the movement of his two-seam fastball, in addition to his slider and changeup, to induce weak contact and get groundball outs over 10 seasons that included a Cy Young Award in 2016.
So what's a guy to do?
"You want to use the technology," Porcello told me last week in Port St. Lucie. "But I remember the first time on the mound in spring training last year, they had the Rapsodo and the Edgertron cameras, and I was thinking so much about spin rate and how the ball was coming off my fingers that I didn't even know where my legs were in my delivery.
"They were telling me I had a high spin rate, that I should use it, but I found out I can't go up in the zone at 92 (mph) when I'm not making pitches to establish down. You want to be coachable, so I tried it, but it didn't work for me. I didn't win a Cy Young by throwing four-seamers."
It took Porcello months to come to that realization, however, and by then he was entrenched in the worst season of his career at age 30. He did manage to post a 14-12 record, but a lot of it was due to the runs the Red Sox scored for him, as he wound up with a 5.53 ERA, the worst among qualifying starters in the big leagues.
"It's kind of embarrassing to say it," Porcello said, "but I felt like I was throwing underwater for most of the season."
Seconding Porcello on such observations is Al Leiter, the former Mets pitcher who now works for the team as a front-office advisor in addition to his duties as an MLB Network analyst.
"I remember watching him pitch last year and saying, 'Why is he throwing upstairs so much?" Leiter said by phone on Tuesday. "He's not a guy throwing 98 who can go up there on an 0-0 count. He can elevate at 1-2 after he gets ahead with his sinker or his slider or changeup, but he can't live up there.
"So I think he got caught up in the analytics and dug a hole he couldn't get out of. But he knows how to pitch, and I think that's something analytics doesn't always take into account. You have to watch Rick to appreciate that he knows his craft, and I think he'll get back to that with the Mets."
In spring training so far, Porcello has offered evidence he can do just that. Though he gave up nine hits on Tuesday in West Palm Beach in 4 2/3 innings against the Astros, they were all singles. And because he got three double-play ground balls, he allowed only two runs.
For the spring, he has a 2.53 ERA in his four outings, and as he said after his start last week, "I'm commanding the ball a lot better (than last year). I'm a lot more confident."
Not that the Mets are expecting dominance, but they know Porcello is durable, and as recently as 2018, he was an important part of the Red Sox championship team, going 17-7 with a 4.28 ERA.
So perhaps his problems in 2019 truly were mostly about trying to be something he wasn't, and Porcello actually did return to his old style for the final three starts in September, deciding that enough was enough. He pitched well, allowing five runs over 17 innings, lowering his ERA from 5.83 to 5.53.
"It took me all year to get back to executing pitches," he said.
Even after going back to leaning on his sinker, Porcello finished the season having thrown more four-seamers than two-seamers for the first time in his career -- 31.6 vs. 24.9 percent of his pitches.
That's a long way from the guy who threw more than 50 percent sinkers early in his career with the Tigers, and 40.6 percent as recently as his 2016 Cy Young season.
All of that convinced the Mets that Porcello was worth a $10 million gamble, and apparently it was a bargain price, considering that he told me he had multi-year offers from other teams.
"I just thought this was a great situation," he said. "I wanted to be close to home, playing for the team I rooted for growing up in New Jersey. They've had great pitching here and they're all about winning. I wanted to be a part of it."
And if Porcello finds success as a Met, clearly it will have more to do with his sinker than his spin rate.