It’s incredible how injuries in sports can be so influential to not just a player’s ability to play but our awareness of him. One triceps injury and David Price went from the talk of the town to a forgotten man. After everything went well in his last rehab start at High-A Charlotte, though, suddenly Price has a chance to make his presence felt as much as any Tampa Bay athlete once again. But is the pitcher the Rays are getting back immediately going to look like the David Price that Rays fans know and love? Will it take time for Price to transition from absent to dominant at the major league level?
When David Price pitched for the Rays prior to the injury, it was hard to tell that he was the same pitcher who had won the AL Cy Youngjust a year before. His results could not have been any more different as he went just 1-4 in his 9 starts with a 5.24 ERA that was more than double his 2.56 mark from 2012. There was some evidence that Price was just going through a run of bad luck as his 4.03 FIP was more reasonable and even more so with his 3.50 xFIP, but his fastball velocity went down from 96.30 MPH all the way to 94.15 MPH according to Brooks Baseball. 94.15 MPH is still quite an impressive velocity, but you had to wonder how much of an impact the lesser velocity had on his performance–and also whether it was a sign of injury, which indeed it was. Now Price is set to return and you have to wonder what his velocity will be like. Price reportedly his the mid-90’s in his rehab start, but does that mean 94 MPH or 96?
There was a line of thinking that Price getting injured make actually be a good thing because it would help him regain his velocity and get back to his previous caliber of performance. It remains to be seen whether his velocity will truly go back up. Price’s fastball, though, is only a piece of the puzzle. Price’s fastball wasn’t as good as it was previously, but just as much of his struggles had to do with the ineffectiveness of his curveball and cutter. Price saw his curveball’s swing-and-miss rate free-fall from 19.95% to just 11.54%, and its groundball to flyball ratio slipped from 3.66-to-1 to just 1.29-to-1. And while his cutter’s whiff rate stayed steady, his groundball to flyball ratio dropped from 2.4o-to-1 down to 1.66-to-1. Price getting healthier certainly doesn’t guarantee that his curveball and cutter will improve. However, Price has used his time on the shelf to get a renewed feel for those two pitches.
Price told reporters after his rehab start that he had a lot of confidence in his curveball, not hanging it up in the zone a single time, and especially interesting was his comment on his cutter (which he calls a slider). Price said that over the course of his rehab outing, he was working to get a little more depth on his cutter, something that he hopes will make it better when he comes back. Price is not only getting healthy but also sharpening up his entire arsenal up in time for his return to the major leagues. With that in mind, the David Price who returns to the major leagues for the Rays will look significantly different than the one who struggled for the Rays at the onset of the season.
Even though Price has used his rehab from his injury as an opportunity to get his feel back on all his pitches, it’s unlikely that he’s going to come back and immediately return to vintage form. Even if his stuff is as devastating as ever, there’s another factor to consider: his pitch count. Price threw just 72 pitches in his last rehab start, and while he says that he could have thrown another couple of innings, it’s unlikely that Price could come back in his next outing and throw more than 100 pitches. Price’s pitch count is an obvious reason that the Rays might want Price to make one more rehab start, but no matter when exactly he comes back, the Rays are definitely going to be careful with him. From April 28th to May 9th of this season, Price threw 119, 104, and 117 pitches in his three starts. Don’t expect Price to have another stretch like that for a little while.
What all of this means is that unless Price is extremely efficient with his pitch count, he’s going to be more of a 5- or 6-inning pitcher early on, a far cry from the nearly 7 innings he averaged last season. The Rays may need to wait a few starts for Price to become that pitcher who can not only pitch effectively but give them 7 or 8 innings in two-thirds of his starts like he did last year. However, what we’re talking about should only be a short-term thing and Price should get back to being a workhorse before long. There’s every reason to think that Price can return to dominance and the only danger is that we ask Price for too much too soon.
Don’t expect David Price to return to the mound and immediately blow away teams every time out. It’s awfully tough to take a month-and-a-half off from most things and return without a hitch–pitching in the majors isn’t like riding a bike. There’s going to be an adjustment period as he gets used to facing major league hitters again and he will have to build up his arm strength as well. But with his health restored and his repertoire refined, it’s only a matter of time before Price returns to being the true ace he has shown that he can be.