An American League sinker baller won the Cy Young in a surprise season and had trouble the following year.
In a way, Dallas Keuchel, the 2015 Cy Young winner, was Rick Porcello before Porcello. Keuchel, the Astros’ ace, went 20-8 that year with a 2.48 ERA and a league-best 232 innings.
Keuchel's follow-up season — during Porcello’s amazing 2016 — was a different story. The lefty Keuchel had a 4.55 ERA and threw 168 innings because of a shoulder injury.
Astros manager A.J. Hinch sees at least a somewhat shared thread between the last two Cy Young winners in the AL.
“My own theory is that it depends on the style of pitcher, and I think you’re on to something when you talk about sinker ball pitchers or different style pitchers,” Hinch said on the CSNNE Baseball Show Podcast. “When you have a plus-stuff guy, someone who has power with all the strikeouts, or the nasty breaking ball and the Cy Young, you think Clayton Kershaw. You think Max Scherzer. You have this guy that can really out-stuff the opponent. I think that guy has a better chance of repeating. Because he can just outstuff you. He doesn’t have to be perfect in his execution.
“When you have sinker ball guys that rely on execution, command, control — maybe the hitter chasing outside the strike zone — I think it’s interesting to look at Dallas’ year last year and maybe Porcello’s year this year as someone who’s trying to repeat behavior. And they’re trying to be perfect. And they might change their approach a little bit. Maybe even subconsciously to be a little more fine with their command, or be a little bit more careful trying to avoid contact.
“That can alter, you know, your competitive state in a lot of different ways. And I think Dallas went through that last season, where he tried to repeat being Dallas Keuchel as opposed to relying on his stuff inside the strike zone with movement to get the outs. For Dallas, it turned into walks. For Porcello, it’s been a little bit more balance getting right-handed hitters or left-handed hitters out. I think that’s changed a little bit.”
Lefties had a .600 OPS vs. Porcello in 2016, while righties had a .672 OPS. This year, both have an .841 OPS vs. Porcello.
The Red Sox have been working with Porcello to regain the depth on his sinker, which has taken on more side-to-side movement at times. That can be effective in itself, if employed in such a way that it starts on the plate and moves off the plate to righty hitters. But righty hitters can’t be too comfortable in the box for that to be the case.
Sinker ballers in general have a hard time these days, because batters focus more on lifting the ball and launch angle and upper cuts.
“We were glad that the the strike zone didn’t get altered, I can tell you that,” Hinch said. “We didn’t want it to be raised. That would be very difficult for sinker baller pitchers. It’s hard to go north and south as a sinker baller. A lot of times, you’re talking about east and west in the strike zone. You’re talking about balls running down and in. But the part about being a sinker baller I don’t think gets talked enough about: you have to locate east and west as well as getting the ball below the zone.
“The style of swings nowadays, with everybody upper cutting and the launch angle of getting the ball in the air, has created a small disadvantage. … You’re going to start with the premise that you’re going to get underneath the ball, and if those balls are elevated at all, we know hard a low fastball can get hit when it’s a little bit up in the bottom part of the strike zone.
"I think the east-west part is going to be how sinker ball pitchers end up combatting the hit-, launch-angle era.”