PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — For their first game in a newly renovated and renamed Clover Park, the finer details of which required construction crews to work at least through Friday, the Mets will roll out their second-most-expensive offseason addition. Righthander Rick Porcello, who signed a one-year, $10 million contract in December, will start the Grapefruit League opener against the Marlins on Saturday.
After a couple of weeks of bullpen sessions and live batting practice — important spring training steps but not the real thing — this will be the Mets’ first look at the progress he is trying to make.
Last season was a disaster for Porcello, who said he is looking for solutions in the minutiae of pitching.
“It’s very small things,” said Porcello, whose guaranteed money is bested only by Dellin Betances’ $10.5 million among new Mets. “It’s not major changes. It’s a matter of a couple inches here or there.
“It’s difficult because they are small movements that require a lot of focus and body control, and you’re trying to do them in an explosive delivery and throwing the ball basically as hard as you can while making those corrections.”
Small changes do not equal easy changes. Much of what Porcello wants to do — keeping his hips loaded, pointing his head and shoulders correctly, centering his weight — require retraining his body in the slightest of ways, breaking the bad habits he developed last year.
One example, via pitching coach Jeremy Hefner: Porcello had a problem keeping his shoulders level in part because, as he delivered a pitch, his head veered off toward first base. Hefner said his advice to avoid that was “keep his chest like he’s chest-bumping the catcher.”
After a recent Mets workout, Porcello and Steven Matz practiced their deliveries — without a baseball — at less than game speed, focusing on controlling their bodies.
“It’s all about creating a feeling,” Hefner said. “In a non-competitive environment, you can really slow things down and go piece by piece so that when it gets into a competitive situation, they can just go out and be their athletic selves.”
How important is spring training? Porcello, the American League Cy Young Award winner in 2016, said his problems started during camp with the Red Sox last year, when he “didn’t get to where I needed to go,” he said. The result: a 5.52 ERA, highest among 61 qualified pitchers, and a 1.39 WHIP.
“It was just a constant uphill battle,” Porcello said. “I made a lot of efforts to correct things. At times I felt better, but I would revert right back into old patterns and habits that I had already developed.
“When you go into the season and you’re not where you want to be mechanically and your physical form isn’t where it should be, going out there and competing, it’s near-impossible to make those corrections and maintain a competitive edge when you’re facing major-league hitters.”
Said Hefner, “It’s just some body awareness, some things that maybe he was able to do a little bit easier as a younger player. As you get older, you gotta call it what it is: You don’t move quite as well.”
That leaves Porcello, 31, trying to develop new muscle memory with a new team. Seeing him in game action for the first time is “absolutely” a big part of that growth, Hefner said.
“Any time physically you get mechanically out of whack and you develop bad habits, it takes time to work out of those things,” Porcello said. “It’s really what I’m focusing on every day. Just continuing to try to create and reaffirm those good habits, those good movements physically.”