Rick Porcello and Tanner Roark Find New Innings Buffets

Rick Porcello and Tanner Roark are both leaving the Winter Meetings with new teams, as Porcello agreed to a one-year, $10 million deal with the Mets and Roark will provide much-needed innings for the Blue Jays on a two-year, $24 million deal. Neither pitcher has had an ERA below 4.00 in any of the last three seasons, but both pitchers have been remarkably durable and largely reliable as innings eaters.

Porcello, of course, has a 2016 American League Cy Young Award on his résumé. While he has not pitched close to that level since, ample run support and regular turns in the Red Sox’s rotation have helped him to win 31 games over the last two seasons. In 2018, he went 17-7 with a 4.28 ERA, and that was good enough for Porcello to rank 41st among starting pitchers in 5×5 Roto value. With the Mets, he will hold down the fourth or fifth spot in the rotation, depending on whether they trade one of their other starters in the wake of adding both Porcello and Michael Wacha during the Winter Meetings.

When Porcello has been at his best, he has been among the stingiest starters in the majors with walks. He had a 3.6 percent BB% in his Cy Young season, but his rates over the last three years have been merely very good — in the 5.0-to-6.0 percent range. He has been steadily reducing his sinker usage since 2016, from 40.8 percent all the way down to 24.9 percent in 2019, and that has played a role in his higher walk rates. Porcello throws his sinker for strikes, and in de-emphasizing it in favor of more four-seam fastballs and sliders, he not only has had a lower Zone%, but also fewer grounders and more swings on pitches in the strike zone.

While Porcello won 14 games in 2019, his 5.52 ERA was the highest of his career, and his 18.6 percent strikeout rate was his lowest since 2014. Throwing fewer sinkers did not lead to more strikeouts, as one might expect. He generated called strikes at a lower rate, and he also saw his SwStr% fall from 8.7 to 8.0 percent, as neither his four-seamer nor his slider were good pitches for swings-and-misses.

For 2020, fantasy owners should not look to Porcello to return to getting 180 strikeouts or more, but his ERA and WHIP could improve as a result of changing venues. Citi Field has been a far better park for limiting hits and runs than Fenway Park, and Porcello goes from one of the most conducive stadiums for hitting doubles to one of the least conducive. That could give Porcello a chance to get his ERA down in the low-to-mid 4.00s to go with 12-to-15 wins. That’s good enough to make him worth drafting in 14- and 15-team mixed leagues.

Roark has only one 200-inning season to his credit (Porcello has three), but the Blue Jays can probably count on him for 175 or 180 innings. He totaled only 165.1 innings with the Reds and Athletics in 2019, as he was less efficient than usual, averaging 5.3 innings per start and 4.14 pitches per plate appearance. Like Porcello, Roark’s strikeout rate has hovered around 20 percent over the last several seasons, so in addition to providing innings, he needs another way to fantasy value. In his case, he has been able to limit hard-hit balls, and in 2014 and 2016, that skill played a part in him recording an ERA below 3.00. Between 2015 and 2018, Roark never finished with a hard-hit rate as high as 34 percent.

That streak ended in 2019, when Roark’s hard-hit rate rose to 37.4 percent. Not coincidentally, he gave up 1.52 home runs per nine innings and a .322 BABIP, both of which were career highs. Roark was actually able to keep home runs in check during his four-month tenure with the Reds. Despite pitching home games at Great American Ball Park, he allowed 1.14 home runs per nine innings before getting traded to the A’s. Strangely enough, it was only after Roark moved on to spacious Oakland Coliseum that he started to give up gopher balls. September was a particularly difficult month, as he coughed up nine home runs in 25 innings, including four in a single start at home against the Rangers.

Much of the damage sustained by Roark over his last five starts came on his four-seam fastball, which yielded seven home runs and a .774 ISO. He lost some velocity late in those finals weeks, averaging 91.7 mph on his four-seamer in September after averaging one full mph higher over the previous four months. More dramatic was the change in Roark’s four-seamer location, as depicted in the heatmaps below. Through the end of August, he consistently located the pitch high in the strike zone or just above it, but in September, it was more frequently in or near the heart of the zone. That location, in combination with lower velocity, resulted in a disastrous month that produced a 6.12 ERA and a 1.60 WHIP.

An optimist would look at Roark’s time in Cincinnati and see the potential for him to weather his new home venue with little trouble. From 2016 to 2018, Rogers Centre played mostly neutral, with the exception of a 115 park factor for doubles, but in 2019, it had the highest home run park factor of any major league stadium. If he is going to have any mixed league value at all, Roark will need to find a way to keep the ball in the park, whether through a rebound in velocity, better location or some other means. Given the potential risks involved with his new home park, it’s best to save Roark for the late rounds in deeper leagues.

Statistical credits: Baseball Savant, Baseball-Reference, Brooks Baseball, ESPN.com, The Bill James Handbook.

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Al Melchior has been writing about Fantasy baseball and sim games since 2000, and his work has appeared at CBSSports.com, BaseballHQ, Ron Shandler's Baseball Forecaster and FanRagSports. He has also participated in Tout Wars' mixed auction league since 2013. You can follow Al on Twitter @almelchiorbb and find more of his work at almelchior.com.

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Not to mention Porcello now gets to face a pitcher spot more regularly