Rick Porcello’s durability and reliability makes him a more valuable pitcher than his numbers might indicate over the course of the regular season.
Of course, 2020 is going to be anything but a regular season.
“That’s part of the reason why I was throwing such long bullpens and long live sessions prior to getting together — so that I could be at my optimal midseason form once my first start of the regular season comes around,” Porcello said Tuesday, four days before he started for the Mets in the first of their two exhibition games against the Yankees.
(Imagine how weird this would have sounded six months ago)
“Whereas (before playing) 162 games, you’ve got however many, seven or eight, starts in spring training, and it’s just the whole buildup and the tapering leading up to the season and getting through an entire season,” Porcello said. “This is completely different now.”
For Porcello, the task in the most different season of this or any other century is for him to find a way to provide the skill set that’s made him the outlier among baseball’s most durable pitchers.
Most of the 12 pitchers who have made at least 300 starts since 2009 are either on the fast track to the Hall of Fame or in the Cooperstown discussion. With a combined five no-hitters, seven Cy Youngs, 564 wins and 8,162 strikeouts, the trio of Justin Verlander (first with 356 games started), Max Scherzer (third with 349 starts) and Clayton Kershaw (seventh with 323 starts) are at the points where they can begin writing their induction day speeches.
Zack Greinke (fourth with 344 starts) is on the verge of cementing his Hall of Fame case, while his fellow former Cy Young Award winners Felix Hernandez (10th with 314 starts), David Price (11th with 310 starts) and CC Sabathia (12th with 306 starts) are all going to generate plenty of spirited debate when they become eligible. So, too, are Jon Lester (second with 352 starts) and Cole Hamels (sixth with 337 starts), each of whom have thrown a no-hitter and won at least one World Series.
And there in fifth place is Porcello (339 starts), who has won a Cy Young and a World Series but whose career has generally been a throwback to the days when the most durable pitchers were also the most workmanlike.
During the 11-year span from 1979-1989, a baker’s dozen worth of pitchers made at least 300 starts. The only one with an ERA+ higher than 112 (12 percent better than the league average) was Dave Stieb (125), who was one-and-done on the Hall of Fame ballot in 2004. Hall of Famers Jack Morris (first with 359 starts), Nolan Ryan (third with 348 starts), Bert Blyleven (sixth with 325 starts) and Don Sutton (13th with 302 starts) all had an ERA+ between 105 and 112.
Among the dozen pitchers with 300 starts over the last 11 seasons, only Porcello and James Shields (eighth with 320 starts) have an ERA+ below 112. Both are at 99. (Gio Gonzalez, who ranks ninth with 317 starts, is the other pitcher to make at least 300 starts since 2009)
Porcello is also one of just three pitchers, along with Scherzer and Lester, to make at least 27 starts in each of the last 11 seasons. Porcello’s allowed at least four runs in a start a major league-high 128 times — almost 38 percent of his starts — since 2009, but that means he’s able to somewhat spare the bullpen on the days he’s not at his best. And he also ranks 10th since 2009 with 211 starts in which he’s allowed three runs or fewer.
All of this combines to make Porcello a helpful pitcher to have in a rotation. Despite posting a 5.52 ERA — the highest in the bigs among qualified starters — for the Red Sox last season, Porcello inked a one-year, $10 million deal with the Mets in December.
Seven months later, that one year has turned out to be unlike any other. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the 162-game season is scheduled to be 102 games shorter. Instead of drawing anywhere between 27 to 32 starts, Porcello will get 12 or maybe 13 in the best-case scenario.
The last 60-game season took place in 1878, a mere 111 years before Porcello was born, so there’s no track record for him or any of his peers to study while preparing for the abbreviated 2020 campaign. Porcello said he’s hopeful his attempts to maintain a regular season workout schedule during the pandemic stoppage will prepare him for a sprint instead of a marathon.
And while Porcello expects to approach each start with the same sense of urgency he’s displayed 339 times over the last 11 years, he understands the margin for error is thin bordering on non-existent. Giving up at least four runs 12 times over 32 starts is barely noticeable. Doing it four or five times over 12 starts? Not so much.
“I think just getting to the best possible position that I am to be on top of my game from start one,” Porcello said. “It’s not that the goals are different when you have 32 starts. I’m not looking to go out there in my first start and think I’ve got 31 more or 32 more so I can kind of let this one slide. I’m always trying to be the best I can every start.
“But when you’ve got 12 starts and 60 games, you know every time you pick up the ball, it’s a huge impact on your team and your chances to make the postseason. You just try and ramp it up as best you can.”