Fantasy Baseball: Can Rick Porcello Replicate His Award-Winning 2016?

The unlikely AL Cy Young award winner is modestly priced heading into 2017 drafts. Can he repeat his performance and be a draft-day steal?

One of the more unlikely Cy Young winners in recent memory, Rick Porcello enters 2017 without the afterglow of boosted fantasy stock that normally accompanies the new hardware.

Whatever we might think of Porcello’s right to that hardware, it’s a little surprising to see such a sober market for the reigning American League Cy Young winner heading into fantasy baseball drafts -- the Boston Red Sox righty being drafted outside of the top 20 starting pitchers per FantasyPros average draft position (ADP) data.

Could this be a buying opportunity? What do the numbers say about Porcello’s chances to replicate his award-winning 2016?

Anatomy of a Banner Year

It may have been a banner year for Porcello, but in many ways 2016 was the same type of season that we’re accustomed to seeing from him, albeit with a stronger final ERA and a little more luck in the win column.

Season W L IP K/9 ERA
2012 10 12 176.1 5.46 4.59
2013 13 8 177.0 7.22 4.32
2014 15 13 204.2 5.67 3.43
2015 9 15 172.0 7.80 4.92
2016 22 4 223.0 7.63 3.15

The bulk innings pitched and modest strikeouts-per-nine are indeed vintage Porcello. So what exactly changed to make this an award-winning pinnacle for the righty? Was his Cy Young anointing a mere misguided nod to the wins total?

Well, the first indication that he might have had some luck on his side comes when we notice that his Expected Fielding Independent Pitching (xFIP) of 3.89 is actually tied for the highest such mark over his past five seasons.

Still, Porcello did post a 1.29 walks per nine that was his best mark by some margin. That said, many of the righty's rate stats confirm the ambivalence towards Porcello’s 2016 that stems from his suspect xFIP. Look at how his last five seasons grade in terms of batting average on balls in play (BABIP), left on base rate (LOB%), ground ball rate (GB%), fly ball rate (FB%), and homer-per-fly rate (HR/FB).

2012 .344 69.0 % 53.2 % 22.6 % 11.5 %
2013 .315 69.8 % 55.3 % 23.7 % 14.1 %
2014 .298 72.4 % 49.0 % 29.0 % 9.5 %
2015 .332 67.5 % 45.7 % 32.5 % 14.5 %
2016 .269 74.3 % 43.1 % 38.0 % 9.3 %

Porcello’s narrowing walk rate is most certainly a notable improvement that corresponds to an increase in skills. But a number of other rate changes here suggest a perfect storm of skills growth and good fortune. After all, Porcello saw a flatlining BABIP despite a career-low ground ball percentage, and a below-average HR/FB rate despite a career-high fly ball percentage.

There’s bound to be some regression in these areas in 2017, right?

Let it Slide

One wrinkle in the “Porcello must regress” narrative is he did make a clear change to his arsenal in 2016. Well, it wasn’t a change as much as it was a renovation.

Indeed, Porcello’s improved slider was his rabbit’s foot last year. He has relied on his slider to some degree throughout his career (he deployed it at a 19.5 percent rate in 2011, for instance), but in 2016, that slider was more effective than ever before.

Here’s how his slider from 2016 lines up in terms of strikeout percentage (K%), line drive percentage (LD%), and on-base plus slugging (OPS) as compared to that same slider in the previous two seasons.

Season K% LD% OPS
2014 14.1 % 22.7 % .782
2015 14.7 % 23.0 % .908
2016 22.4 % 18.6 % .593

Apparently Porcello’s slider was damn near impossible to hit with authority in 2016. Of the 449 sliders he threw last season, only 25 surrendered hits -- and a mere 9 of those hits went for extra bases.

It’s clear that he did something with this slider to make it more deceptive. After all, he induced a 53.5 percent swing rate on it in 2016 compared to 44.4 percent the previous year (and last year he threw the pitch half as often!), yet his contact percentage only budged ever so slightly from 77.3 percent in 2015 to 77.9 percent in 2016.

So while regression’s other shoe might indeed drop to some degree, the reclaimed dominance of this slider might remain his golden ticket -- if not to outright excellence, at least to well above-average pitching production.

Value In Context

numberFire’s 2017 projections do indeed slot Porcello as a decidedly above-average fantasy producer for this season, albeit with some ERA and wins regression baked in.

In terms of numberFire’s projected fantasy value algorithm, Porcello appears near the end of what seems like a low-end ace class, alongside hurlers like Yu Darvish, Masahiro Tanaka, Chris Archer, Carlos Carrasco, and Carlos Martinez.

Here’s how the numberFire projections for these six pitchers stack up, along with their respective average draft position per FantasyPros.

Player nF Score ADP IP W K ERA WHIP
Yu Darvish 4.99 38.7 191.3 12 230 3.53 1.17
Masahiro Tanaka 4.96 89 195.7 13 171 3.55 1.11
Chris Archer 4.33 60.7 199.4 12 219 3.52 1.21
Carlos Carrasco 4.32 58.7 176.9 12 187 3.41 1.17
Carlos Martinez 4.08 76.7 202.5 14 197 3.33 1.28
Rick Porcello 3.98 96 196.4 16 160 3.83 1.15

Porcello is the clear low man here in terms of strikeout production, as well as the one who needs to benefit most from team performance in the win column to recoup expected value.

But then again, these issues seem to be accounted for in his draft-day price. In fact, the market would allow for the possibility that standard-league owners can comfortably draft the reigning Cy Young winner as a high-end second starter to complement their more strikeout-heavy, early-round ace.

In this respect, perhaps the narrative of regression can prove a boon for shrewd fantasy owners. Sure, he won’t likely be as good as he was in 2016, but clearly the market isn’t pricing him to repeat. In leagues where the regression narrative pushes him towards the 100th overall pick, Porcello makes for a nice low-risk investment that can help stabilize a fantasy rotation.