When Rick Porcello took home the Cy Young Award last year, it was a victory for the win.
By any statistical measure, Porcello had a stellar season for the Boston Red Sox. But at a time when a pitcher's win-loss record is often dismissed as irrelevant, Porcello knew he was voted the American League's best based as much on his 22-4 mark as any other metric, including his 3.15 ERA or 189 strikeouts.
"As much as everybody wants to discount wins and losses -- there's definitely arguments against those, and I've said that -- there's also a lot of value to it," Porcello said in November. "If there wasn't any value to it, we wouldn't be keeping that statistic. It wouldn't be the first thing you see on the board when a guy takes the mound, his wins and losses. There's a way to go out and pitch to win a ballgame, and there's a way to go out and pitch not to lose a ballgame."
In that case, Porcello can’t deny that the 5-14 record he will drag into his start Wednesday night against the Tampa Bay Rays is an indictment of how he has pitched this season. The Red Sox have gotten shut out in five of his 23 starts, and opponents' batting average on balls in play -- a relevant statistic for a contact pitcher like Porcello -- is up from .269 last year to .333 (.300 is considered average). But the bottom line is Porcello has pitched only well enough to lose nearly three-quarters of his decisions.
And with Porcello set to make at least nine more starts, the right-hander isn't out of the woods when it comes to joining the ignominious 20/20 club. In the past 60 years, seven pitchers have lost 20 games one season after winning 20. Only one, Hall of Famer Steve Carlton, was a reigning Cy Young winner. None played for a winning team in the 20-loss year.
So what accounts for Porcello's reversal of fortune? Surely, it must be more than a lack of run support and balls being hit out of a defender's reach.
"The game has changed a lot. The hitters have changed a lot," Porcello said. "It's crazy to say, but the way we pitched five years ago is not the way we can pitch now. There's been a lot of adjustments since then."
And Porcello has been affected as much as any pitcher -- seemingly overnight.
Porcello is sinkerballer, his success rooted largely in his ability to pitch down in the strike zone and occasionally surprise a hitter by elevating a pitch. But the recent trend among hitters has been to swing in an uppercut fashion and lift more balls in the air to improve their chances of hitting a home run. With so much emphasis on "launch angle," or swinging underneath the ball, pitchers who thrive on keeping the ball down have been forced to either go even lower or reinvent themselves.
In his ninth big-league season and with a four-seam fastball that averages only 92.6 mph, Porcello isn't about to do the latter. But he also hasn't been particularly effective at the former, as evidenced by the career-high 26 home runs he has given up. Entering Wednesday, only five pitchers in the majors had allowed more, with Seattle's Ariel Miranda at the top of the list with 29.
"It's such a fine line, a gray area, whatever you want to call it," Porcello said. "Establishing the ball down in the zone to make your other stuff effective -- four-seamer up or breaking balls below the zone -- we still have to do that. But now we've got to find the right guys to do it against. If you want to live down there against guys that are aggressive, that are lifting the ball at the bottom of the zone, they'll get you in one pitch. Just trying to find out ways to combat that and make adjustments has been the dialogue that we've had going on back and forth."
The reassuring thing for Porcello is that he isn't alone. Hitters combined for 1,101 homers in June, the most for any month in history. Through Tuesday, 4,240 homers had been hit this season, putting baseball on pace to eclipse the record of 5,693 set in 2000.
"Hitters are consistently looking to do more damage with each swing," former MLB pitcher Brian Bannister, Boston's vice president of pitching development and assistant pitching coach, said. "There are less hitters utilizing the traditional small-ball tactics such as moving the runner with a ground ball to the right side. The concept of pitching to contact is therefore more dangerous, and it requires an adjustment by lower strikeout-rate sinkerball pitchers, who in the past benefited from hitters who were willing to hit the ball on the ground on a regular basis."
But pitchers can still be effective by getting outs on the ground. Strikeouts might be on the rise -- Porcello is averaging a career-high 8.2 strikeouts per nine innings, up from his nine-year average of 6.3 -- but it's not like pitchers are piling up 20-strikeout games either. Sinkerballers aren't suddenly obsolete.
In June, the Red Sox claimed Doug Fister off waivers as a way of adding depth to their starting rotation, a move that finally has paid off with the veteran right-hander posting back-to-back quality starts in victories last week over the Cleveland Indians and Chicago White Sox.
But an unintended benefit of adding Fister has been his ability to act as a sounding board for Porcello. Not only do they both pitch to contact with two-seamers down in the zone, but as teammates with the Detroit Tigers from 2011 to 2013, Porcello often referred to Fister as something of a kindred spirit.
"Strategy is something we definitely talk about a lot," Fister said. "It's a constant struggle because, yes, [the sinker] is a quality pitch, and it is something that we rely on heavily. But at the same time, we have to continue to evolve, whether it's the launch angle that changes where we locate our pitches or how we're mixing things up, changing eye levels a little bit more, changing speeds a little bit more. Whatever it takes."
There are signs Porcello is evolving.
After opponents batted .419, .400 and .367 on his sinker in April, May and June, respectively, they hit only .184 against it in July, an indication Porcello was more precise with the location of his signature pitch. He also owns a 3.76 ERA and has given up only 36 hits in 40 2/3 innings over his past six starts after posting a 5.06 ERA and allowing 138 hits in 105 innings through his first 17 starts.
"The nice thing for pitchers is [hitters] can't cover all four quadrants of the strike zone," Porcello said. "Where now they're covering down there, it used to be that up was the danger zone. Now you can elevate the ball a little bit more. There's ways around it. We've talked about the adjustments that we can make while still being in our game plan and what we're capable of doing."
But although Porcello might be trending in the right direction, last Thursday night's 9-5 victory over the White Sox marked his first win since June 23, a span of seven decisions.
It's further proof that wins and losses aren't entirely in Porcello's control. Neither, it seems, is avoiding the dreaded 20/20 club. Despite the outcome of many of his starts, Porcello has pitched well enough to keep the Red Sox in most games. And with the Sox vying for another AL East title, they aren't about to remove one of their most reliable pitchers from the rotation if he's closing in on 20 losses.
"While we're in season, my day-to-day thoughts are going out there and giving us a chance to win," Porcello said. "There's a lot of that's out of your control as far as wins and losses go. I just have to go out there and give us a chance to win a lot more games every fifth day. That's it."
In some years, doing that is enough to win the Cy Young Award. In others, well, it might just lead the league in losses.