FORT MYERS: The way Red Sox pitching coach Carl Willis sees it, Rick Porcello runs into trouble whenever he tries to throw too hard.
Maybe a couple of well-placed sinkers get whacked through the infield for singles. All of a sudden Porcello is in a jam. And then the 27-year-old, who is due to make $20 million this season, tries to add a few ticks of velocity to his pitches.
In Willis’ mind, this is where it all goes downhill for Porcello, who was lit up yesterday for five runs on 10 hits, including three home runs, in 62/3 innings against the Baltimore Orioles.
Despite the poor start, Porcello’s spring training ERA dropped from 12.00 to 9.76. He has allowed 29 hits in 152/3 innings.
“He increases his effort level, and that’s when the baseball tends to creep up in the strike zone with him,” Willis said. “It’s not mechanical, it’s more effort related. I think he’s aware of it. It comes from a good place. He wants to do well.”
Willis says the problem is fixable. But as the Red Sox enter a season in which they finally have an ace, David Price, but are without injured Eduardo Rodriguez and will rely on Clay Buchholz, Joe Kelly and Porcello, they can’t afford too many forgettable outings. Porcello is supposed to be the stable one of the group.
“He’ll get there,” Willis said. “He just needs to relax a little bit.”
The first home run was a blast by Orioles outfielder Xavier Avery, who hit six home runs in Triple A last year. Avery punished an 89 mph fastball over the faux Green Monster to lead off the game. Porcello, who averaged 93 on his fastball last year, sat around 89 all game yesterday.
Asked if he cared about his velocity, Porcello said, “No, not really.”
Red Sox manager John Farrell said, “His success does not rely on velocity. It’s all centering around location.”
Porcello hung a curveball to Nolan Reimold to start the sixth inning, and he clubbed it over the left field wall. Two batters later, Porcello missed on another 89 mph heater to career minor leaguer Francisco Pena, who hit .251 in Triple A last year. Pena jacked that one out.
“It’s just a mistake in executing a pitch,” Porcello said. “But other than that I felt pretty good. Was able to get deep into the game, so that’s good.”
From the start of spring training, Porcello was not expecting his numbers to look good. He learned that from previous years, when he tried to rush himself into pitching a spring training game the way he’d pitch in a pennant race. Instead, he was hoping to take a slow and steady path into the regular season.
With only one outing left before the regular season — in a minor league game on Saturday, putting him in line to pitch the third game of the season in Cleveland — Porcello said he’s right on schedule.
“Everything is working,” he said. “It’s just a matter of executing pitches now.”
Yet the results haven’t been there.
“Sometimes all it takes is one really good game,” Willis said. “There’s no lack of confidence, believe me, in himself or from our staff. It’s just a matter of him relaxing and allowing it to happen.”
Farrell is expecting more.
“He’s capable of better,” Farrell said. “He has shown that. .?.?. We need him to be a little bit more consistent. When he was up in the strike zone, they squared him up. That’s been the ongoing mantra with Rick: Be able to dominate the bottom of the strike zone more consistently and use that sinker a little bit more to his advantage.”
The problem with sinkerballers is that any left up in the zone drift into the hitter’s swing path. This happened often last year when Porcello allowed a career-high 25 home runs.
“High sinkers tend to go a long way,” Willis said.
The Red Sox hope fewer of them leave the park.