Behind the numbers: A look at Rick Porcello’s Cy Young season

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This year’s AL Cy Young race had a bit of old-school flavor to it.

In contrast to Major League Baseball’s youthful-trend, the top-two finalists for the coveted, pitching award were seasoned vets: Boston’s Rick Porcello and Detroit’s Justin Verlander.

It was close. The former teammates enjoyed good seasons, but not in the classic, dominant, voter-wooing sense. With no clear-cut favorite, the ballots were predictably-split.

Verlander received fourteen, first-place tallies to Porcello’s eight. However, with the weighted scoring system, it was the latter who took home the hardware, finishing with 137 “points” to Verlander’s 132.

Only two men have won a Cy Young while receiving fewer, first place votes: Bob Turley in ’58 with five votes and Jim Perry in 1970 with six. But, before you cry that Verlander got shafted, consider the fact that eight other voters were unconvinced of his candidacy, casting votes for Cleveland ace Corey Kluber and Baltimore closer Zach Britton.

Let’s compare the statistics of the candidates, minus Britton (with all due respect to the O’s fireman, 67 innings does not a Cy Young campaign make). The value of a single-inning reliever is eclipsed many times over by a top-of-the-rotation workhorse.

Here are Porcello and Verlander’s stat-lines, with Mr. Kluber’s stats thrown in for good measure:

Name IP GS CG QS W-L SO ERA FIP WHIP BB/9 K/9 WAR
Porcello 223.0 33 3 26 22-4 189 3.15 3.40 1.009 1.3 7.6 5.0
Verlander 227.2 34 2 27 16-9 254 3.04 3.48 1.001 2.3 10.0 6.6
Kluber 215.0 32 3 22 18-9 227 3.14 3.26 1.056 2.4 9.5 6.4

By the numbers, the three men’s seasons are more or less indistinguishable. Porcello pocketed the most wins, but lags behind the other two pitchers in WAR. Verlander was the WHIP and strikeout king but couldn’t match the nasty Kluber’s 12.6 swing and miss percentage. Kluber also managed to be efficient, pacing the trio with just 3.71 pitches per plate appearance – great for a strikeout pitcher.

Such situations present a murky situation for voters. But, clearly someone had to win. And, it might as well have been the lanky, Red Sox, right-hander, who has taken the scenic route on his way to stardom.

If it feels like Rick Porcello has been around forever, it’s because he has. Drafted in the first round by the Detroit Tigers, he reached the big leagues before his 21st birthday and has stuck there ever since.

Still, for a player who was once rated the country’s number one prep star, the results have been somewhat underwhelming. His win-loss record prior to 2016 sat at 85-78, backed by a ho-hum, 4.41 ERA.

What changed?

Porcello has always been able to generate weak contact with his trademark sinker. But, he’s less of a groundball-pitcher than ever, these days. In 2016, Porcello’s 43% groundball percentage was the lowest of his career, while his flyball rate climbed to a career-high 38%.

Those numbers usually spell trouble for groundball pitchers. However, Porcello has changed his approach over the past few seasons. Coaches in Boston encouraged him to make increasing-use of his four-seam fastball – whose vicious spin makes it hard for batters to square up.

The result was a career-high 189 strikeouts, which made up for the decrease in groundouts. Porcello has always been above-average at limiting walks and home runs. He took that to new extremes in 2016, with a miniscule-1.3 walk rate.

He did get a bit lucky in the gopher ball department (9.3% HR/FB ratio versus the league average of 13%), but even the 27.8 expected home runs would have been less than the 30 allowed by Verlander.

Add all that to the fact that, even in 2016, a 22-4 record just looks pretty darn sexy. Aiding the cause was the Boston Red Sox’s monster lineup. Porcello received a whopping 6.61 runs per game, which paced both leagues by an easy margin (J.A. Happ of Toronto finished second with 6.01 RPG).

Average Run Support Per Game:

Porcello: 6.61
Kluber: 5.16
Verlander: 3.97

Would an extra three runs a game have pushed Verlander past the twenty-game threshold? Verlander pitched a whopping ten games in which he went six-plus, while allowing three runs or less – only to be hung with a loss or a no-decision. A couple more breaks his way, and we could be having a whole different conversation.

So, while not undeserving of the award, Porcello’s 2016 season will ultimately be a minor footnote, in the annals of Cy Young history.

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