Eleven nights ago, Rick Porcello got knocked around for seven runs on 10 hits, including two home runs. It marked the fourth time in six starts that the Boston Red Sox right-hander allowed at least 10 hits, something he did only once all of last season. But then nothing about this year is anything like 2016 for Porcello.
Like Porcello, Keuchel is a sinkerball pitcher without overpowering stuff. Like Porcello, Keuchel relies on getting weak contact in lieu of pumping fastballs past overmatched hitters. And like Porcello this year, Keuchel followed a Cy Young Award-winning season in 2015 with a disappointing dud.
A late-blooming lefty, Keuchel didn't have a full-time spot in the Astros' rotation until 2014 at age 26. He went 20-8 with a 2.48 ERA in 232 innings over 33 starts in 2015 before going 9-12 with a 4.55 ERA in 168 innings over 26 starts last season, becoming the 19th pitcher since 1956 to follow a Cy Young season by posting a sub-100 adjusted ERA (100 is considered average; Keuchel recorded an 86).
Porcello is on track to become the 20th. After going 22-4 with a 3.15 ERA last season, he will lug a 4-9 record, 5.00 ERA and adjusted ERA of 93 into his start Wednesday night against the Minnesota Twins. And if it has caused folks to wonder if Porcello is a one-Cy wonder, it isn't anything Keuchel didn't hear last season.
"It's tough. It really is," Keuchel said. "This game is really tough. But you just got to keep telling yourself things are going to get better if you keep with it. I knew that if I put in the necessary work -- and I'm sure he does the same thing -- at some point it was going to pay off."
In Keuchel's case, part of the problem could be attributed to persistent left shoulder soreness that prevented him from getting that last little bit of extension in his delivery. As a result, his sinker and changeup were elevated in the strike zone and hitters teed off.
By all accounts, Porcello is healthy. But he did throw a career-high 223 innings last season en route to leading the Red Sox to a division title after averaging 178 innings per year from 2009 to 2015. It wouldn't be uncommon if the residual effect of that increased workload is at the root of Porcello's struggles.
Porcello is at his best when he pounds the bottom of the strike zone with two-seam fastballs. When he doesn't establish his sinker, it makes it more difficult for him to elevate his four-seamer, according to Red Sox manager John Farrell. And when Porcello loses confidence in his sinker, he tends to try throwing harder, which in turn messes with his delivery and further impacts his command.
It's a vicious cycle, one that doomed Porcello to a 9-15 record and 4.92 ERA two years ago in his first season with the Red Sox.
Porcello insists he's "not going to go back and look at all that stuff" from 2015, even though it might be instructive. Based on what Farrell has seen from Porcello this season, he “can't say it's dissimilar” to what the right-hander went through two years ago.
Although Keuchel notes that Porcello's average fastball velocity is a few ticks better than his, he also concedes that he "sees a lot of similarities in our styles," specifically their dependence on the sinker. And in watching Porcello two weeks ago in Houston, Keuchel sees some of the same things that plagued him last year.
"It's just been a year for him where the fastball command is not there," Keuchel said. "It's tough, but at the same time, there's fixes. It's not like he's lost everything he had in the tank. He's still throwing 93-94 [mph] when he wants to and still got some sink, but when you leave the ball up against some of the best hitters in the game, it's tough to get those back."
Indeed, Porcello has given up 132 hits, more than any pitcher in the league, in only 99 innings. He has allowed 16 homers after giving up 23 all of last season. And while Porcello's location has been off, hitters aren't missing. Opponents are batting .371 on balls in play against him compared to .269 last season and .312 for his career.
Despite his struggles, Porcello has somehow managed to complete at least six innings in 13 consecutive starts. And optimists such as Farrell point to Porcello's last three innings in Houston (one run on three hits) and his first six innings last Friday night against the Los Angeles Angels (one run on five hits) as signs that things might be looking up.
The Red Sox need that to be the case during the second half of the season. In the aftermath of David Ortiz's retirement, the Red Sox knew the offense wasn't going to produce at a league-leading level. Instead, they were built around a starting rotation led by Porcello, David Price and new ace Chris Sale.
And while Sale has been arguably the best starter in the American League, Porcello has gotten hit hard and Price is still smoothing out the rough edges after missing the first two months of the season with an elbow strain.
But the best reason to be hopeful about Porcello is Keuchel's resurgence this year. Through 11 starts, he's 9-0 with a 1.67 ERA and only 48 hits allowed in 75 2/3 innings. If not for a pinched nerve that landed him on the disabled list a few weeks ago, Keuchel might be the early Cy Young favorite in the American League.
"There was a lot of things going on in my own mechanics last year that I wasn't going to have good results," Keuchel said. "I knew most of the time when it was going to happen, and it did. Location in this game is so crucial that some of the best guys can go through rough stretches, and I think a large part of it [with Porcello] has to do with the fact that he's not locating his fastball.
"As much as I'm sure he hates that he's not helping the team out right now, for the most part, he probably knows in the back of his mind that things are going to turn around eventually and he's going to be the guy that everybody knows he can be."
It took an entire season for Keuchel to get back to that point. The Red Sox are hoping Porcello needs less time to rebound.