According to Eno Sarris, the Milwaukee Brewers are currently below league average at first base, left field, third base and in the starting rotation. With plenty of offseason in place, the Brewers have time to rectify many of these holes. There are a variety of ways a team can outplay projections. One such approach might be to sign a player coming off a bad season, but has demonstrated better performance in the past. With a huge need in the starting rotation, David Stearns might be able to find such a pitcher in Rick Porcello.
With Boston in 2019, Rick Porcello was not very good. Over 174.1 innings, he pitched to a 5.53 ERA (87 ERA+) and a 1.39 WHIP. 2019 was Porcello’s worst season in MLB by far in his career.
Porcello has been pitching in the league since 2009 when he broke in with the Detroit Tigers at the age of 20. Since that time, the veteran pitcher has put up solid middle-of-the-rotation performances year over year with a top-of-the-rotation performance during his Cy Young campaign of 2016. That alone makes Porcello valuable and a pitcher worth considering. Why else might he be enticing to Milwaukee?
He’s a reliable starter that can eat up innings
Porcello shows up for all of his starts (281 of them over the past nine seasons), and he has shown an ability to get deep into games, piling up a minimum of 174.1 innings each season (2019) and eclipsing 200 frames three times. Porcello is a workhorse, but he is not an ace workhorse. Ace-level pitchers tend to fade less as the game progresses than other pitchers. Yet he has nonetheless pitched deep into games his entire career. He could take stress off the bullpen by pitching deeper into games. If you take a more traditional view, there is value in that.
Reduction or more efficient use pitching him third time through the order
I just suggested that Porcello could eat up innings and take stress off the bullpen. However, he does tend to fade later into games the more times a lineup sees him. He tends to be like most pitchers and will struggle the third time through the order. Maybe having a goal of 15-21 outs dependent upon efficiency (the less traditional view) instead of focusing on innings pitched is a better answer and enhances his value. Let’s look at xFIP year over year for first, second, and third times through the lineup for Porcello to demonstrate the point.
2016 - 1st time through order: 3.53, 2nd time through: 3.54, 3rd time through: 4.53
2017 - 1st time through order: 3.63, 2nd time through: 4.42, 3rd time through: 5.36
2018 - 1st time through order: 3.54, 2nd time through: 3.81, 3rd time through: 4.42
2019 - 1st time through order: 4.57, 2nd time through: 5.12, 3rd time through: 6.13
Compare that to Zach Wheeler, who just signed a 5 year contract for more than $23+ million per year:
2017 - 1st time through order: 3.79, 2nd time through: 4.28, 3rd time through: 5.45
2018 - 1st time through order: 3.04, 2nd time through: 3.93, 3rd time through: 4.54
2019 - 1st time through order: 3.75, 2nd time through: 3.43, 3rd time through: 5.03
If you take Porcello’s 2016-2018 and compare to Wheeler’s 2017-2019, the two pitchers compare favorably in this category. It is not my intention to suggest that Porcello is as good as Wheeler, but Wheeler was paid like a budding ace and Porcello would be paid as a mid- or back-of-the-rotation arm. Aces do not fade third time through the order. Quite possibly if Porcello is pitched a bit less, he might deliver better quality results. (As an aside, Brandon Woodruff had an xFIP third time through the order of 2.95 in 2019, which implies he might actually be a budding ace.)
Pitch usage overhaul might produce better results
As mentioned, Rick Porcello was not very good in 2019. Here is the breakdown of his pitch utilization that season.
Nothing major yet to point out except he seemed to get a lot of the plate with his four seam and sinker. 2017 produced a less than stellar year as well, although not terrible like 2019. Pitch utilization that season looked like:
In both of these seasons, the percentage of pitch type thrown was very similar. He throws the four seamer between 31.5-33.3% and the sinker about 26%. There are slight differences in slider, curve, and change usage. 2018 and 2016 were much better seasons for Porcello. In those two seasons, Porcello posted a 1.18 WHIP (2018) and a 1.01 WHIP (2016) respectively. Compare that to the 1.40 and 1.38 WHIP of 2017 and 2019, and we have a starkly different pitcher. One of the glaring differences in these seasons is pitch utilization. Take a look at Porcello’s 2018 season.
Sinker usage approaches 30% and he is throwing his slider a great deal more. The four seam fastball is only being thrown 20% of the time, a 16-18+ percent difference from 2017 and 2019. Look at his Cy Young season of 2016.
Sinker usage is up to almost 38% while four seamer usage remains in the low 20s. It seems that he might want to throw the sinker more and the four seam fastball less, returning to a 30+ percent usage of the sinker and four seam usage in the low 20s.
Something else to consider, he seems to be a little less in love with his slider in 2016 than in the next three seasons as well. There was a concerted effort to throw the slider more from 2017-2019. Part of the reasoning had to be that his slider rates out quite well. The only season that it does not in 2019, which was his slider was weighted as -8.1 runs (surprise, surprise).
That might be something to explore from a due diligence stand point if you are wanting to sign Porcello. Finding his slider again would prove beneficial. Maybe he was not getting as much depth. Maybe he was pitching through a minor injury. Maybe his mechanics were off? Maybe the ball adversely affected him? There are any number of things that could be behind that dip in pitch quality. Unfortunately I am unable to ascertain an understanding of why this might be the case. Even if he cannot find his slider again, replacing its usage, as well as his four seam fastball, with increased sinker usage might work too. It did in 2016.
Porcello’s market value at a low point in a player’s market, so value to be had
The veteran right hander comes to free agency at a bad time for him. Coming off his worst season, he is not going to garner a 5 year, $75-80 million contract. Yet if he had his 2018 season coming into the 2019 market, he might very well be commanding that kind of contract. I would be tempted to sign him for 3 years if I were in Stearns shoes. Porcello might be looking for a pillow contract, however, to recover some of his value. Porcello offers limited risk at what will likely be a reasonable price. MLBTradeRumors.com predicted 1 year and $11 million as his price tag.
Postseason experience into the starting rotation
Rick Porcello contributed meaningful outs during the Red Sox World Series Championship run against the Yankees, Astros, and Dodgers. He pitched in Divisional Series against the Astros in 2017 and Cleveland in 2016 (though he did not pitch so well against Cleveland). He also made multiple postseason runs with the Detroit Tigers. Having a veteran who has won and lost in multiple playoff series would likely prove valuable to the young staff in Milwaukee. Gio Gonzalez contributed a similar function for the Brewers the past two season, but Gio never won a ring.
Rick Porcello is not Gerrit Cole or Stephen Strasburg, or even Madison Bumgarner. He is a quality major league pitcher with virtually no injury history who was once good enough to beat Justin Verlander out for a Cy Young. He has been on a number of playoff teams and has a World Series ring. He makes all of his starts and can take pressure off the bullpen if Counsell and Company wished to use him in that way. He could also be used more efficiently and effectively, which would tie right into the Brewers’ way of doing things. With some possible tweaks in pitch usage and the understanding that 2019 was probably an aberration, the Brewers could be getting a really good pitcher if they could sign him. One year for $11 million or so, or even 3 years for $33 million or so seems like a good bargain with the 2020 market in mind.
Baseball statistics courtesy of Baseball Reference, Fangraphs, and Baseball Savant