At the beginning of 2013, David Price barely resembled the pitcher that won the AL Cy Young award just a year earlier, managing just a 5.24 ERA in 9 starts before landing on the DL with a triceps strain. When he came back in July he still wasn’t the David Price we were used to–he was a freak of nature. The results were outstanding as Price went 7-1 with a 1.97 ERA, averaging 7 and a half innings a start. The craziest part, though, was his strikeout to walk ratio, which stood at an incomprehensible. It was so extreme that Price has basically become a different pitcher. The odds of him going from striking out 24.5% of the batters he faced in 2012 to just 19.9% in his last 13 starts is just 3.97% (25 to 1 odds), a statistically significant value. The probability of his walk rate free-falling from 7.1% to just 2.2% is just .00034 (2940 to 1 odds). It’s a statistical impossibility that Price suddenly started walking so many fewer batters by chance alone–this was obviously a conscious change in approach.
What did Price do to adjust his game so dramatically? The answer lies in his pitch usage. Here’s a comparison of the frequency he has used each of his pitches between 2012 and from July 1st to now in 2013 using data from Brooks Baseball.
Between his sinker and fastball, Price has decreased his fastball usage from 60.5% in 2012 to just 51.2% in his last 13 starts, and he has made up for the difference by ramping up his changeup usage and also throwing his cutter and curveball slightly more. Why would Price do that? The knee-jerk explanation is because his fastball velocity has gone down, from 96.30 MPH in 2012 to 94.43 MPH since July, and it had dipped even further before Price went on the DL. His fastball wasn’t as good, so he was throwing it less. But while that is something that Price has to bear in mind, the biggest difference is not the velocity but how Price has used his fastball, not just how often but where. Price has gone from throwing his fastball in the zone 44.1% of the time to 47.5%, which doesn’t sound so large until you realize that among MLB pitchers with a minimum of 100 innings pitched, that 3.5% is the difference between the 13th-highest mark in baseball and the 77th-highest. With that in mind, it’s not surprising that Price’s whiff rate on his sinker has dropped from 6.39% to 4.40%–Price has always thrown a lot of strikes, but now he’s going for less swings-and-misses and pitching to contact more than ever before. Calling Price’s fastball a sinker was funny for years because he was the farthest thing from a sinkerballer. But now that is exactly what Price is becoming, throwing his fastball over the plate to force contact on the ground. Price has pitched with the same mind-set for all of his other pitches as well, throwing them in the zone and seeing what happens instead of burying them down to get swings-and-misses.
The fact that David Price has become a completely different pitcher is not a bad thing. He may be different, but he has been better than ever before and seemingly could not be stopped. But the last two starts, Price has finally gotten hit hard, allowing 10 runs, 9 earned, on 17 hits in 14 innings even while he has struck out 11 while walking 2. It could be that Price simply had two bad starts. But whether it’s now or next season, the league will adjust to this new David Price, and Price will have to adjust back. Price is becoming more of a pitcher and less of a thrower than he has been ever before, but the way he’s pitching now could leave his succeptible to far more hard contact than he should be allowing if teams can start adjusting to his pitch sequencing and teeing off especially on his cutters, changeups, and curveballs thrown within the zone. David Price pitched off his fastball because it was his best pitch by far and made all of his secondary pitches play up. Price now has put his secondary offerings in the spotlight, and if they sit their long enough, hitters will realize that there are ways to hit them. Price’s fastball is still a great pitch, and by the way, his velocity is still there–he touched 97.35 MPH nineteen times in his start against the Angels. There’s no reason he can’t go back to being the pitcher who won the Cy Young award just last year. Price can be successful with his current approach, but it should be something dictated on his stuff that day, not just his default mode. When his fastball isn’t quite at full strength and his secondary pitches are looking good, he can go with this pitch-to-contact type of approach and befuddle hitters expecting to see him trying to blow fastballs by him. But that can’t be something he’s doing start after start. No matter how well he pitched for that 11-start stretch, Price has to remind himself that his approach from last year can still be a major part of his success if he just remembers that it’s there.