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Rick Porcello's Rapid Rise Gives Red Sox Postseason Ace They Need

Bill Speros@@realOBFSpecial to Bleacher ReportOctober 4, 2016

BALTIMORE, MD - SEPTEMBER 19: Rick Porcello #22 of the Boston Red Sox reacts after being given an ice bath after pitching a complete game against the Baltimore Orioles on September 19, 2016 at Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images)
Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Boston Red Sox starting pitcher Rick Porcello loves to fly-fish whenever work doesn't get in the way. This year, he may reel in the American League Cy Young Award or baseball's ultimate catch—a World Series ring.

Porcello's semi-secret New England fishing spot is near a home he has in Vermont, located close to the Massachusetts border. He also fly-fishes in both salt and fresh water near the Red Sox's spring training home in Fort Myers, Florida.

Porcello (22-4) sees a real-life connection between casting for rainbow trout in his native New Jersey and pitching to Mike Trout at Fenway Park.

"The fishing carries over to baseball," Porcello told B/R. "If I'm mentally drained and need my escape, that's usually what I go to. It helps me clear my head. If I have an off day, or a morning where I don't have a lot going on that day. It's not very often. I try to mix it in."

The daily catch varies by season and location—just as successful pitches in baseball vary based on opponent and location. Thursday, Porcello starts for the Red Sox in Game 1 of the ALDS at Cleveland.

Any mention of Red Sox and fishing allows for no more than two questions before Ted Williams enters the conversation. Williams is a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame, the Fishing Hall of Fame and the Marine Corps Sports Hall of Fame.

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"I'm aware of the three Hall of Fames he's in," Porcello said.

The Marine Corps Hall of Fame is probably out of the question, but is Porcello gunning for a spot in either Cooperstown or Springfield, Missouri, where the Fishing Hall of Fame will soon be located?

"I'm gunning for a World Series, and maybe down the line, some kind of award."

Monday, Porcello was named American League Pitcher of the Month for September. The Comeback Player of the Year Award is a strong possibility, but the honor bearing the name of the once-upon-a-time Red Sox pitcher Young would be his top individual prize in 2016.

Porcello said he's "simply honored" to be in the Cy Young conversation. He led the American League with 22 wins, becoming the first Red Sox pitcher to reach that number in a season since Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez won 23 in 1999.

Porcello finished second in the American League with a 1.01 WHIP. Detroit's Justin Verlander's was lower by .01. His 3.15 ERA was fifth league-wide. Aaron Sanchez of the Blue Jays captured the ERA title (3.00), helped by his dominant performance against Boston (7 IP, 2 H, 1 ER) on Sunday.

Porcello's consistency in delivering quality starts in 2016 was pivotal in Boston's AL East title run. The Red Sox were coming off back-to-back last-place finishes. Starting on July 29 this year, Porcello strung together 11 consecutive starts of seven innings or more in which he allowed three runs or less.

Obnoxious Boston Fan @realOBF

Pretty Ricky Pretty Good #RedSox https://t.co/ntRiP1vK8v

"He's a model of consistency. He's been so strong. He's been so consistent. It's a combination of multiple things: a talented guy, a well-prepared pitcher and an extremely competitive one,” Red Sox manager John Farrell said.

Detroit traded Porcello to the Red Sox before the 2015 season in a deal that sent Yoenis Cespedes to the Tigers. Porcello, a lean 6'5", 205-pound righty, finished 2015 at 9-15 with a portly 4.92 ERA and 1.360 WHIP in only 172 innings. He landed on the 15-day disabled list with a strained right triceps muscle Aug. 2.

His keys to finding success in 2016 were mental and mechanical.

"A lot of [my offseason] was spent working on my delivery," Porcello said. "Something I've always battled in my career is trying to find the check points in my delivery and being able to maintain that over the course of a season. That was my major focus. That was one of the big things that was off last season."

Porcello spoke to B/R at length in a one-on-one before the Red Sox clinched a playoff spot with a 6-4 victory on Sept. 24.

Then-Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington signed Porcello to a four-year, $82.5 million contract extension in April 2015 that kicked in this season. That contract extension, Porcello said, brought up a lot in conversation as to why he struggled.

The contract wasn't an added pressure point for Porcello.

Red Sox @RedSox

Tonight marks 22 wins for #22. Congrats to the league-leader in wins, @RickPorcello! https://t.co/FKn85dpMfo

"I went back and forth in my head trying to figure out why I was putting so much pressure on myself," he said. "It wasn't the contract that was doing it. I was coming into a new environment. New coaching staff. New organization. New teammates. New city. I wanted to show them all what I could do. I ended up being my own worst enemy."

Red Sox President of Baseball Operations Dave Dombrowski told B/R he believed Porcello had "No. 1 starter" potential when he drafted Porcello out of high school in 2007 as GM of the Detroit Tigers. The Red Sox hired Dombrowski on Aug. 18 of last year after the team fired Cherington.

Porcello's contract, along the $183 million combined committed to Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval, fueled much acrimony last season among citizens of Red Sox Nation and media types who report on the team.

"He was probably doing things he normally wouldn't do," Dombrowski said. "Rick is more of a two-seam, sinkerball type of guy, with command of his pitches. It's a better position than where he's constantly using the four-seamer trying to overpower hitters. That's what he was trying to do [last year]. A lot of the time, people put those expectations on themselves because they think they need to do that in order to live up to big-dollar situations."

Dombrowski's hiring to command the Red Sox front office coincided with Porcello's return from the disabled list.

"He [then] looked like the Rick Porcello that I had always seen. He lived with the two-seamer and really commanded the strike zone. The other difference, this year, is that he's in a much more comfortable situation coming back in the second year. You can also just see the maturity in pitching, the mix of pitches and the command of the strike zone," Dombrowski said.

"But all of a sudden you see him elevate the fastball a little bit more than he used to, and pitch in and out more than he used to. So I just think you see the normal, natural development and maturity of a young pitcher who is a quality pitcher, not overpowering, but has learned to pitch with his stuff and get people out."

Porcello's regular scouting regimen is simple yet effective. The day before each start, he breaks his opposing lineup into two parts. He will spend about an hour watching 60 to 70 pitches each batter has faced in the past week. He will scout five batters on the first day and four on the day he starts.

"I'll be looking at what hitters have done in the past week, because they can change," he said. "Some guys have been hitting the fastball in the past couple of weeks, then they transition and start hitting a breaking ball. Or they're covering different areas of the strike zone. So I want to be aware of what they're feeling now. And it's what I see in the game. So if I'm establishing my fastball, and I see that's beating hitters or getting on guys, I'm more apt to be aggressive and stay hard with them. And vice versa.

"I see what they're doing. If they're aggressive in the count. What counts they don't want to be in. Take that, try to identify their weaknesses, take my strengths and try to apply it all."

Ian Harmon @iHarmon2323

Another great sinker by Porcello, this one with such good movement that Ryan Goins starts heading to first base! https://t.co/3uz5jlkuOE

After more than a full calendar year with the Red Sox, Dombrowski is fully confident the more mature 2016 Porcello is the long-term rule, rather than the exception.

He cites evidence to back that up in Porcello's performance.

"More changeups, breaking balls, mixing pitches much more. When he was a youngster, he was a two-pitch pitcher—fastball and change. He's brought the curveball in recent years. He's got the cutter, the two-seamer and four-seamer," Dombrowski said. "Now, I think the mix of pitches and the comfort of throwing any pitch at any time, with the command that he has, when he's behind in the count, is the maturity aspect you're talking about. You have to have the ability to do that, and he does have the ability to do that."

The Red Sox went 25-8 in games started by Porcello in 2016. His only loss in 16 starts at Fenway Park this season came in spite of a one-run, eight-inning effort on Sept. 14. Baltimore beat Boston 1-0.

Porcello's 2016 masterpiece to date was an 89-pitch, complete-game 5-2 victory over the Orioles on Sept. 19. Sixty-five of his pitches were strikes. He struck out seven batters and allowed four hits without walking a batter. Porcello threw first-pitch strikes to 22 of 32 batters and went to a three-ball count once.

He demonstrated, at least for one night, thorough mastery of all five of his pitches: the two-seam and four-seam fastballs, the changeup, the slider and the curve.

David Price @DAVIDprice24

I haven't done my due diligence for my teammate and it's well over due...RICK PORCELLO for cy!! Last night should have solidified that #RPCY

"That's anybody's ideal outing—to have all your weapons working," Porcello said. "The reality is that doesn't happen very often. It's really hard to do. That was a really good night for me against a good lineup. In order to beat those guys, you have to have all them going. It just happened at the right time. It's what I'm looking for. It doesn't always happen. If I can have my fastball command, and at least one or two off-speed pitches, then I can manage that and be OK."

His Cy Young push, meanwhile, has won over hearts and minds across Red Sox Nation.

"Not because he's my boy—but he's got the inside track. He's got better numbers than everybody else," Red Sox DH David Ortiz told B/R. "More wins. We are where we're at because of his performance. I'll leave it up to the voters, but I'd vote for him. 100 percent."

        

Bill Speros is an award-winning journalist who covers baseball for Bleacher Report. He is a columnist for the Boston Herald and tweets @RealOBF.

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