In 2010, David Price was absolutely electrifying. After a mediocre year in his rookie year in 2009, Price got after to an exhilarating start, closing out April with a 4-hit shutout of the Toronto Blue Jays to finish off the month with a 2.20 ERA, and he never stopped dominating, not stringing together two non-quality starts in a row the entire season. His seasonal numbers were absolutely staggering as he went 19-6 with a 2.72 ERA in 31 starts, a relief appearance, and 208.2 IP. He struck out 188 (8.1 K/9), walked 79 (3.5 BB/9), and allowed just 15 home runs (0.6 HR/9). That performance was enough to get him a second place finish in the AL Cy Young voting behind only Felix Hernandez. But sabermetricians weren’t quite as impressed. Price’s FIP (fielding independent ERA based on strikeouts, walks, and homers allowed) was 3.43, and his xFIP (FIP replacing home runs with expected home runs based on flyballs allowed) was even worse at 3.83. They expected a regression from Price in 2011. And that’s what happened.
Price was hugely disappointing in 2011. He certainly wasn’t bad, but after setting the bar so high, he simply didn’t pitch to the level we expected. After getting off to a spectacular start in 2010, he was mediocre in 2011, closing out April with two non-quality starts after not doing so a single time in 2010 to finish the month with a 3.95 ERA. Price pitched pretty well in May and June before posting a 5.04 ERA in July, but then he rebounded to post a 2.13 ERA in a dominating August before being just mediocre in the Rays’ September stretch run. On the season, Price actually posted a losing record at 12-13, and his ERA was just decent at 3.49. He didn’t miss a start, going 34 starts and 224.1 IP, but he simply wasn’t impressive enough to the average observer. However, looking into his peripheral stats, Price could be primed for his best season yet in 2012. In 2011, Price struck out 218, an 8.7 K/9, while walking just 63, a 2.5 BB/9, although he did allow 22 home runs (0.9 HR/9). His FIP was actually better than 2010 at 3.32, and his xFIP was the same. Is Price really going to break out in 2011?
The sabermetricians completely flip-flopped from 2010 to 2011. Something that hasn’t flip-flopped is Price’s arsenal of pitches. Let’s compare Price’s 2010 Pitch F/X data to 2011 data using the data from BrooksBaseball.net as displayed by one of my Pitch F/X graphs and see what insights we can receive.
(For information on the topic of Pitch F/X and specifically how to read his type of graph, please see here.)
Looking at these two graphs’ keys, we see that Price used his fastball a bit more in 2011 compared to 2010, but more significantly he used his sinker and changeup quite a bit more, around 6% more of the time for both. He decreased the use of his curveball by 7% while using his slider slightly more and adding in a cutter, which was basically a slider that traded a little more velocity for less movement.
Price actually got noticeably better movement on his fastball both in terms of vertical and horizontal net movement in 2011 compared to 2010, but something very interesting happened with his sinker and changeup. As Price used his sinker more, it looked more and more like his fastball, losing its nearly 5 MPH speed difference and also most of its bite, making it nearly an identical pitch to his fastball. Price’s changeup, on the other hand, increased in effectiveness, showing dynamic sink and horizontal movement, but although it had an over 10 MPH speed differential, it still hasn’t too far off in movement from his fastball and sinker, meaning that Price threw 3 pitches with similar movement for 82% of his pitches. The result of that was Price’s fastball being considerably less effective than before. According to Brooks, Price’s fastball forced swings and misses 11.5% of the time in 2010 while his curveball caused whiffs on 10.6% of swings and his changeup 7.8%. For some perspective, in 2011 the league average whiff rates for fastballs, two-seamers, and changeups were 6.7%, 4.6%, and a 13.5%, meaning right off the bat that Price’s fastball was a well above-average. Price’s sinker was above-average in terms of swing-and-miss rate, but it failed to force a 2-to-1 groundball to flyball ratio, coming at 1.47 to 1, and it allowed flyballs to the outfield at the second highest rate of all of Price’s pitches, other than one: his horrific changeup. Nevertheless, because of its incredible empty-swing rate, Price’s sinker was still a well above-average pitch. We see that his changeup wasn’t nearly as effective as the league average’s in terms of whiff rate and we also see that he managed just a 1.07 to 1 GB to FB ratio. Good thing Price used his changeup so infrequently in 2010. Rounding out Price’s arsenal, his slider forced a below-average whiff rate but made up for it by forcing a 3.67 to 1 GB to FB ratio with the pitch, while his curveball was slightly below-average, being below the league average in whiff rate but forcing a 2.38 to 1 GB to FB ratio. In 2010, Price was effective because he was able to work off his outstanding fastball and mix in his other pitches effectively.
In 2011, the Pitch F/X graph says that Price threw 6 distinct pitches. That is false, and in fact he threw only four because his fastball and sinker were so similar and his slider and cutter were so similar. That also means that Price threw his fastball an incredible 71% of the time. The more you throw a pitch, the less effective it is. Accordingly, the extreme increase in usage rate led to a precipitous drop in whiff rate for his fastball/sinker, down to 9.8% and 6.4% respectively, although he was able to post a 2.13 to 1 GB to FB with his sinker. Price was able to really improve his changeup’s movement, leading to a 10.3% whiff rate that was the highest of any of his pitches along with a 1.42 to 1 GB to FB, but he threw it just over 1 of every 10 pitches, not enough to really take advantage of it. Price’s breaking balls had their moments, but they were never something that Price could consistently rely on, with both of them posting below average whiff rates, although his slider/cutter posted a 2.00 to 1 GB to FB while his curve came at 2.38 to 1. In 2011, Price may have improved his strikeout and walk rates, but it’s no coincidence that he allowed more homers because he was depending so much upon his fastball.
David Price’s fastball is an outstanding pitch. He is able to locate it and force tons of weak swings. Price’s fastball is the only pitch he trust enough to throw at any point in the count and at any point in the game. However, when he does misplace it and the hitter recognizes that, it gets hit and hit hard. Price tried to keep hitters off-balance with his changeup, but he didn’t throw it often enough to keep hitters off his fastball. He wanted to throw his sinker, but he would reach back for more velocity and it would turn out almost exactly like his fastball. And all season, he was never able to establish his breaking balls. If David Price continues to utilize his arsenal like he did in 2011, he’s not going to magically start improving. To get back to his 2010 level, he will need to continue to cause havoc with his fastball, but he has to be able to mix in his other pitches. Essentially, David Price was a thrower in 2011, just throwing his fastball over 70% of the time and seeing what happened. This past season, Price had a breakthrough with his changeup, and his sinker and slider have been impressive pitches in the past. Price has to be able to mix those four pitches (plus his decent curveball) effectively to keep hitters off his fastball and maximize the ability of each pitch. Hitters have enough trouble with Price’s fastball. If he can keep them off-balance with his offspeed pitches, he’ll be close to unstoppable.
Price has to be disappointed with his performance in 2011. He has been talking to pitching coach Jim Hickey and the Rays pitching instructors to find ways to improve this coming season. He realizes that he has to mix in his offspeed pitches more to be the true ace he has the potential to be. And that’s exactly what he’s going to do in 2012. I project Price to throw 34 starts and 230 innings in 2012, and strike out 230 (9.0 K/9), walk 64 (2.5 BB/9, although he also has hit 0.3 batters per 9 in the majors), and allow 18 home runs (0.7 HR/9). That amount to a 3.16 FIP which would easily be the best of his career. Using our usual formula that we calculated in an earlier preview that determined that Rays pitched out-perform their FIPs by an average of .34 thanks to the Rays’ incredible defense, that would amount to a 2.82 ERA, not quite as good as his 2010 season, but still excellent. With the Rays offense improving this season, that could be enough for Price to win 20 games, and I would guess (somewhat arbitrarily) a 20-7 record for Price if he can put up these numbers. If Price can do that, he would give the Rays’ a second true ace at the top of their rotation along with James Shields. With the Rays looking to come up with their best season yet in 2012, that would be huge lift.
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