HOUSTON — Imagine having the most rewarding year of your life, 12 months in which all of your hard work pays off with absolutely everything going in your favor. Now imagine working just as hard, not skipping any steps along the way or taking anything for granted, and seeing everything go completely wrong.
Can a dream really turn into a nightmare that easily?
Just ask Rick Porcello.
It has been only seven months since Porcello exalted with his mother, father and two brothers after winning the Cy Young Award as the American League’s best pitcher. But there he was, on the mound for the Boston Red Sox here Saturday night, leaving pitches up in the strike zone and getting rocked once again, this time for seven runs on 10 hits in six innings of a 7-1 rout by the Houston Astros.
Porcello has now allowed at least five runs in four starts, one more than all of last season. In his past eight starts, he has a 6.02 ERA and has allowed eight home runs. In 13 starts overall, he has a 5.05 ERA, which ranks 66th among 76 pitchers who have worked at least 70 innings.
From Cy to sigh, in the blink of an eye.
“It’s just inconsistent,” said Porcello, indescribably frustrated by his sudden misfortune. “That’s the bottom line — inconsistent.”
Porcello isn’t the first pitcher to stumble after reaching the pinnacle of the profession. In fact, 19 pitchers followed up a Cy Young season by posting an adjusted ERA of less than 100, which is considered average. From Bob Turley in 1959 to Jim Lonborg in 1968 and Randy Jones in 1977, history is littered with pitchers whose year-after-Cy was disappointing.
Most recently, Astros lefty Dallas Keuchel went 9-12 with a 4.55 ERA (adjusted ERA of 86) last season after claiming the Cy Young in 2015. Like Porcello, Keuchel is a sinkerballer. Like Porcello, his success is dependent upon locating his pitches precisely because he lacks the swing-and-miss stuff that conceals any amount of mistakes.
And that has been the problem, it seems, for Porcello. As Red Sox manager John Farrell said Saturday night, too much “elevation [of pitches] in the strike zone” is allowing hitters to tee off.
It happened in a three-run first inning fueled by doubles from George Springer and Jose Altuve. And it happened in a three-run third when Altuve hit a high cutter out of the ballpark and Carlos Beltran went deep on a high fastball.
“Anytime he made a mistake up in the strike zone, those are the pitches that came back to haunt him,” Farrell said. “The night-and-day difference is elevation in the strike zone.”
Said Porcello: “When you’re not sharp and you’re not on your game, this is what happens.”
The Red Sox are trying everything possible to help Porcello.
Pitching coach Carl Willis has worked with him between starts to make a change to his delivery that might enable him to keep the ball down more consistently. Thus far, it hasn’t taken. Farrell said he has considered having Porcello work with Christian Vazquez rather than Sandy Leon, who has been Porcello’s personal catcher. It wouldn’t be surprising if that change is made when Porcello takes the mound again Friday night at Fenway Park against the Los Angeles Angels.
Is it possible Porcello could benefit from being skipped in the rotation for one start?
“Honestly, there aren’t any alternatives,” Farrell said. “Rick is a key member of this team, and we’ve got to continue to work to get it right.”
It seems Porcello can draw on his experience from two years ago. In his first season with the Red Sox, he posted a 5.81 ERA through 20 starts largely because he wasn’t locating his sinker. But after a turn on the disabled list and a minor league rehab assignment, he put together a solid eight-start stretch that served as a springboard for his star-kissed 2016 season.
Farrell considered Porcello’s struggles in 2015 and concluded he “can’t say it’s dissimilar” to his problems now. But Porcello, perhaps in the aftermath of his latest dud or possibly out of stubbornness, insisted he won’t look back in order to move forward.
“It’s a different year,” he said. “I’m not going to go back and look at all that sort of stuff. It’s a matter of executing pitches. That’s what got me out of the s— I was in in 2015, and that’s what’s going to get me out of it now: executing pitches.”
There is hope, of course, for Porcello. Keuchel appears to be back to his Cy Young form, going 9-0 with a 1.67 ERA before a neck injury forced him to the disabled list.
“I know what it is to fix,” Porcello said. “I’m just having a really hard time doing it.”
In the meantime, Porcello’s dream has turned into a nightmare. The Red Sox need him to wake up.