Corey Kluber came from somewhere like nowhere to win the AL Cy Young for the Cleveland Indians in 2014. Dallas Keuchel did approximately the same thing in 2015. At the moment, it seems like there's a pretty good chance Red Sox ALDS Game 1 starter Rick Porcello is going to give the American League three big-surprise winners in a row, because his 22-4 record and 3.15 ERA make him look like a stronger candidate than any other AL starter. It should be noted that, unlike Kluber or Keuchel, big things were expected from Porcello; he was one of the top prospects in baseball heading into the 2009 season, found among the top ten on some lists. Porcello spent nine seasons in the Majors between then and this year though, never really looking like more than a slightly better than average starter, plenty good enough to have in your rotation, but not someone you were going to mention in your letters home from Camp Firewood.
Here's a look at some of Porcello's numbers this year, from his 223 innings of work:
- 3.15 ERA
- 3.40 FIP
- 145 ERA+
- 1.01 WHIP
- 7.63 K/9
- 1.29 BB/9
- 0.93 HR/9
At first glance none of those figures might be eye-popping, but his 5.91 strikeout-to-walk ratio led the American League, and he was among the top five in ERA, FIP, ERA+, WHIP, BB/9, and HR/9. For a while his Cy Young case was catching a lot of grief, because it seemed to be built on a gaudy record (he finished at 22-4) that was somewhat the result of his MLB-best run support, but Porcello finished the season with 13 consecutive quality starts, with a 2.60 ERA in 97 innings during those final ten weeks of the regular season, and while there are others one can make a case for, Porcello would be a fine choice for the Cy Young.
Porcello's velocity has actually been down this season, but he's mixed in more off-speed pitches and has gotten far better results with each of his main pitches this season than in previous years. His fastball has gone from okay to very effective, despite an average velocity of 91.4 MPH, hardly blazing. He's long thrown a slider, but this is the first season it's been a strong pitch for him, and he's found greater success with his changeup as well.
Batters swung at an above-average percentage of Porcello's pitches outside the strike zone, but at a below-average percentage of Porcello's pitches in the strike zone. Porcello worked in the zone more often (48% of all pitches) than all but one other qualified American League starter. Those factors combine to mean he tends to get ahead in the count, giving him the upper hand later in the at bat. Porcello has a low swinging-strike rate, but because hitters are often swinging at pitches out of the zone, they haven't been making the right kind of contact to be successful, leading to a lot of catchable fly balls.
Porcello used to be a fairly neutral pitcher, and actually leaned towards the ground-ball side of things, but this season, in the biggest difference I see in his numbers, he's cut down on both his ground balls and line drives. He posted by far the highest fly-ball percentage of his career (38%, compared to a career figure of 28% entering this season), and that plays very well for him, because Boston has excellent defense in the outfield, so even the fly balls that are pretty well hit stand a good chance of being caught.
Led by Carlos Santana, the Indians had one of the highest walk-rates in the American League. Patience isn't likely to pay off against Porcello though, because he's in the zone so much. Santana, Jason Kipnis, Jose Ramirez, Mike Napoli, and to some extent Francisco Lindor, all tend to be willing to watch a lot of pitches, but they should probably all be a bit more aggressive than usual. Other than Napoli, those guys all have above-average contact rates (Ramirez especially), and they'll need to put that skill to good use, rather than expecting free passes or counts that work in their favor and allow them to wait until late in the at bat.
The Indians aren't likely to win any 1-0 or 2-1 games against Boston, because the Red Sox have the best offense in baseball. The Tribe has a strong bullpen, but will probably need to score some runs during the early innings, to keep things close. Against Porcello, they should plan to attack early, so that guys like Andrew Miller and Cody Allen can make a difference late.