Tuesday April 7th, 2015

Rick Porcello has yet to throw a regular-season pitch for the Red Sox, but already, the team has decided to invest even more heavily in his future. The 26-year-old righty, who could have become a free agent following the 2015 season, has signed a four-year, $82.5 million extension covering the '16–19 seasons. At first glance, it's a staggering guarantee that appears to be based more on Porcello's promise than his track record. He'll be paid like a frontline starter, having pitched mostly like a back-of-the-rotation one until last year, by far the best season of his six-year career.

Upon closer examination, however, the deal reflects the reality of the market for starting pitching and the ongoing inflation of salaries in an industry awash with cash. Notably, the four-year term mitigates some of the risk that the Red Sox are taking, and it's apparent that they feel his age, track record for durability and style of pitching will help this deal to succeed where others have failed.

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Acquired on Dec. 11 from the Tigers in a four-player deal that saw Boston give up Yoenis Cespedes, Porcello is already under contract for $12.5 million this year, having agreed to terms in January. His new deal gives him a signing bonus of $500,000 and calls for $20 million salaries in 2016 and '17, then $21 million in '18 and '19. Its $20.625 million average annual value ranks as the 14th-highest for a starting pitcher in major league history, and 12th among current deals in a neighborhood dominated by Cy Young winners. Jon Lester ($25.83 million, third overall), Cole Hamels ($24 million, tied for eighth), Masahiro Tanaka ($22.14 million, 12th), Matt Cain ($21.25 million, 13th), Adam Wainwright ($19.5 million) and Carlos Zambrano ($18.3 million, 18th) stand as the only pitchers among that top 20 without such hardware, though Lester, Hamels, Cain and Wainwright have all played key roles on World Series winners.

Porcello has neither a Cy Young nor a ring, and he's the only one from among the top 20 besides Tanaka—who missed more than two months of his first stateside season after coming over from Japan—never to have received even a Cy Young vote. While Porcello was part of the Tigers' 2012 pennant-winner squad, he was limited to one inning out of the bullpen in the World Series in a losing cause.

That said, in terms of total value, Porcello's $82.5 million drops into a tie for 19th among pitchers, tied with those of John Lackey (2011–15 from the Red Sox) and A.J. Burnett ('09–13 from the Yankees)—which is to say, much older deals given the game's rate of salary inflation. It's the highest dollar value for a four-year deal ever given to a pitcher, surpassing the $75 million the Padres gave James Shields in February. Shields's deal allows him to opt out after two seasons, and it also contains a club option for $16 million for '20. Porcello's deal has neither options, though it does have a limited no-trade clause that allows him to block being dealt to three teams.

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So yes, it's a big deal, matching Lackey's for the largest ever for a Red Sox pitcher (not counting the conditional clause that kicked in after he underwent 2012 Tommy John surgery, tacking on another year at minimum salary), and surpassing Josh Beckett's $17 million per year ($68 million from '11–14) as the team record. Note that both of those contracts date back at least five years, to a time when Theo Epstein was the team's general manager, and that both went to older pitchers whose performances declined due to injuries before they were ultimately traded. Beckett's extension, signed a year ahead of schedule, covered his age-31–34 seasons; he was traded to the Dodgers less than halfway through. Lackey's free-agent deal covered his age-31–35 seasons; it was dreadful at the front end before his surgery, though he rebounded to help the Red Sox win the World Series the next year before being traded last summer. By comparison, Porcello's deal covers his age-27–30 seasons; more on his age and mileage relative to those two below.

Even those other Boston precedents, it's still not quite obvious what the Red Sox are thinking, beyond the typical sticker shock that comes with escalating prices for mid-rotation starters, in part because it's not clear that Porcello has established himself at that level. A 2007 first-round draft pick out of Seton Hall Prep School, he broke camp with the Tigers as a 20-year-old in '09, and save for a four-week trip to Triple A bracketing the All-Star break in '10 (at a point when he was carrying a 6.14 ERA), he has been in the majors since. In his six seasons, Porcello has pitched to a combined 4.30 ERA (98 ERA+) and struck out just 5.5 per nine, averaging 179 innings and 1.8 WAR (Baseball-Reference.com version) per year. Only twice has he posted an ERA below 4.00 or an ERA+ higher than 100: in that '09 rookie campaign (3.96 ERA, 114 ERA+) and last year (3.43 ERA, 116 ERA+).

Some of that has to do with the fact that Porcello has spent the vast majority of his time in Detroit pitching in front of a lousy defense. His career .311 batting average on balls in play is 14 points higher than the major league average in that span, and his career FIP is 4.03 thanks to low walk and home run rates (0.9 and 2.2 per nine for his career, respectively), which offset his low whiff rate. In front of a significantly better Red Sox defense, he has a better chance of pitching to his capability.

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Limited somewhat in workload due to his age, Porcello didn't top 200 innings until last year, when he pitched 204 2/3 during a breakout season that saw him tie for the major league lead in shutouts (three) and post 4.0 WAR, his highest mark since his 2.5 WAR rookie campaign. That 4.0 WAR was tied for 21st in the majors with Madison Bumgarner and Julio Teheran, two pitchers who are actually younger than Porcello, by roughly seven and 25 months, respectively. Over the past two seasons, Porcello has totaled 6.3 WAR, which ranks 32nd among all pitchers, and over the last three years, he's at 7.9 WAR, which ranks 36th. Solid rankings across the board, but nothing special.

What has limited Porcello's value to date beyond that slightly suppressed workload is that he doesn't strike out many hitters. On a per plate appearance basis, his 14.4% strikeout rate ranks 34th out of 39 pitchers with at least 1,000 innings since the start of the 2009 season, about 20% below the average AL starter in that span (17.9%). From among that group, his 98 ERA+ is tied for 30th with Ervin Santana, recipient of a four-year, $55 million deal from the Twins in December (not to mention an 80-game suspension from the league for a positive PED test last week).

Notably, Porcello is the youngest from among that group of 39, roughly nine months younger than both Clayton Kershaw and Trevor Cahill, only one of whom has posted a similar performance in that span: 173 innings, a 100 ERA+, a 16.2% strikeout rate and 1.7 WAR per year. That's Cahill's line, not Kershaw's, of course; currently, the former's trying to rebound from a 5.61 ERA/-1.5 WAR season with the Diamondbacks, having just been traded to the Braves on April 2. Thankfully for Porcello, he's in better shape than that.

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Indeed, the Red Sox must feel that Porcello is in particularly robust shape, which is part of his appeal to them. To date, he's done two things very well: avoid the disabled list and generate groundballs by the bushel. He's one of 14 starters to pitch at least 162 innings in each of the past six seasons, a group that includes eight of those aforementioned big-money deals, and he's made at least 27 starts in all six years, with only 2010 (27 starts owing to that minor league stint, which incidentally left him two service days shy of free agency after last season) and '13 (29 starts, due to late-season bullpen exile) the only exceptions. For his career, he's generated worm-killers on 52.1% of balls in play, fourth among those aforementioned 39 hurlers behind Justin Masterson (56.7%, accompanied by a 19.4% strikeout rate and 91 ERA+), Cahill (54.6%) and Felix Hernandez (52.3%, with a 24.2% strikeout rate, a 141 ERA+ and a Cy Young).

Masterson, as it happens, is one of Porcello's current rotation-mates despite coming off a dreadful season in which he posted a 5.88 ERA and -1.7 WAR while pitching his way out of the rotation of two contenders, the Indians and Cardinals; inflammation in his left knee was a factor, one that sent him to the DL during the time span in which he was traded. At this time last year, he had just broken off negotiations with Cleveland in an attempt to secure a a multiyear deal with an average salary of $17 million; upon reaching free agency, the now-30-year-old righty settled for a one-year, $9.5 million deal—the so-called "pillow contract"—from the Sox, who drafted and developed him. All of that serves as a reminder of what could have gone wrong for Porcello this year, and thus why reaching an agreement now instead of testing free agency makes sense.

Porcello’s combination of durability and a ground-ball–oriented approach—instead of a strikeout-oriented one—stands in contrast to his aforementioned Red Sox predecessors: Beckett, Lackey and Lester. Forget run prevention for a moment and consider the mileage of those four pitchers at the point when their aforementioned deals kicked in (not necessarily when they were signed), as well as their strikeout and groundball rates:

pitcher ip pitches K% GB%
Lester 1,596 29,814 21.8 46.8
Beckett 1,528 2/3 24,234 22.6 43.8
Lackey 1,501 23,828 18.9 43.6
Porcello 1,073 1/3 16,896 14.4 51.2

Admittedly, this is skewed somewhat by the fact that Porcello still has one year to go before his extension takes effect, but even if you pencil him in for an exact repeat of last year in terms of innings and total pitches, he'd come in at 1,278 innings and 19,951 pitches, both by far the lowest of the group. That, and the fact that he’ll be four years younger than those pitchers when his deal takes effect, appears to be Boston's focus rather than his track record with regards to run prevention.

As to whether Porcello will be worth the money, I'll turn to the finish line of the "What is he really worth" exercise that I did for Shields—a four-year–deal recipient, recall—which used $7.0 million per win in 2014 as a starting point and applied inflation and a crude aging curve to estimate the value he would generate over the life of the deal. What quickly becomes apparent is that Porcello doesn't even have to maintain his '14 level to make it work. A 5/4/3 weighted average of his past three seasons using the B-Ref version of WAR—that's five times the value of his most recent year (4.0 WAR), four times his '13 value (2.4) and three times his '12 (1.5)—generates a baseline expectation of 2.8 WAR. If we assume a 0.4 per year decline (less than I've done for other versions of this exercise, due to his younger age), here's how that looks:

year age war market $/w value
2016 27 2.8 7.78 $22.1
2017 28 2.4 8.20 $20.0
2018 29 2.0 8.64 $17.6
2019 30 1.6 9.11 $14.9
    9.0   $74.6

That's short of $82.5 million, but it's also a fairly ungenerous assumption with regards to Porcello's performance, particularly because that lackluster 2012 season will be further in the rearview mirror by the time the contract takes effect. If I simply split the distance between his '13 and '14 seasons at 3.2 WAR and go from there with a similar decline as above, the take-home figures become 10.4 WAR and $86.8 million. If I nudge the decline up by an extra run per year (0.5 win per year decline), we're back to 9.8 WAR and $81.5 million. If I use that steeper decline but start with a 4.0 WAR season for '16, the deal comes in at 13.0 WAR and $108.5 million, making his current contract a tremendous bargain.

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In the end, I don’t think Porcello’s deal will be that tremendous bargain, but I don’t dislike it nearly as much as I did when news of the signing broke. Like many, my initial reaction ignored the effects of inflation, both with regards to the new standards for pitchers set this past winter and going forward in a financially healthy industry.

That said, I’m still not sure Porcello is a pitcher I’d bet $82.5 million on as a GM. He’s not a particularly hard thrower (91.7 miles per hour on his average four-seamer and 91.2 on his more frequently-used two-seamer in 2014, via BrooksBaseball.net), leaving him less margin for error if he loses a click or two. Similarly, it’s just not that common to see pitchers in this day and age succeeding with low strikeout rates. Consider the bottom nine from the aforementioned 39 pitchers with at least 1,000 innings since '09:

player k% ip era fip ERa+ war
Trevor Cahill 16.2 1,040 1/3 4.07 4.28 100 10.1
Jason Vargas 15.5 1,039 2/3 4.01 4.23 97 10.8
Kyle Lohse 15.5 1,006 3.75 3.94 102 9.7
Rick Porcello 14.4 1,073 1/3 4.30 4.03 98 10.6
Bronson Arroyo 14.0 1,125 4.06 4.70 99 10.5
Kevin Correia 13.9 1,007 1/3 4.59 4.45 83 0.4
Jeremy Guthrie 13.4 1,213 1/3 4.34 4.73 98 12.3
Mark Buehrle 13.4 1,237 3.83 4.05 111 22.4
Joe Saunders 13.0 1,002 4.50 4.75 90 2.3

There are some particularly unhappy stories among that group, with a handful of pitchers getting by and only Buehrle—the best paid of the bunch, currently in the final year of a four-year, $58 million deal—truly thriving on a consistent basis. I’m not sure Porcello can thrive, but he’s certainly shown the ability to survive at the major league level, and if he can do so in the largely hitter-friendly ballparks of the AL East, he can justify this deal.

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