What Did The Rays’ David Price Discover At the End of 2012?


David Price is coming off a huge season for the Tampa Bay Rays, winning the AL Cy Young Award following a season that saw him go 20-5 with a 2.56 ERA and a 205-59 strikeout to walk ratio in 31 starts and 211 innings pitched. But even after a season like that, Price believes he has the ability to be even better in 2013, as he told Bill Chastain of the Rays’ official site.

"“It’s nothing that’s going to be noticeable to you guys or probably anybody else, except maybe [pitching coach Jim] Hickey,” said Price, who said for the most part he’ll pitch the same way he has the past couple of years."

Price said that he’s basically going to be the same pitcher, but there was some subtle change that’s going to help him. Price also said that he doesn’t expect anyone to notice it. However, that now that Price has tipped it off that something is different, let’s look at the stats and see if we can figure it out. The key here is going to be trying to find a difference between Price’s September performance and the rest of his season that can’t be explained by random fluctuation in his performance like what happens to every player in baseball over the course of the year. Looking for something like that, several things stand out.

After missing a start with some shoulder soreness, Price came back to finish his season extremely strong, going 3-0 with a 2.67 ERA and a 30-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio in his final four starts across 30.1 innings pitched. His 2.67 ERA was actually a bit above his 2.56 mark on the season, but his peripheral stats were especially impressive as he managed an 8.9 K/9, a 1.5 BB/9, a 0.3 HR/9, and a 61.7% groundball rate compared to his 8.7 K/9, a 2.5 BB/9, a 0.7 HR/9, and 53.1% groundall rate on the season. The K/9 looks like nothing out of the ordinary and his HR/9 could very well have been a fluke considering just 1 of the 31 flyballs he allowed, 3.2% went for a home run compared to the 10.5% that went for home runs against him on the season. Price’s 2.24 FIP (calculated using his strikeout, walk, and homer rates) during this four-start stretch was quite a bit better than his 3.12 FIP on the year, but using xFIP, which adjusts the actual number of home runs for the expected number of home runs given that about 1 of every 10 flyballs a pitcher allowed should be a home run, he managed just a 3.14 mark, almost identical to his 3.20 xFIP on the season. But his low walk rate and high groundball rate specifically stand out. A result as extreme as Price walking 5 of the 117 batters he faced (4.27%) over his final four starts of the season is something that would occur in 11.7% of samples if Price’s true walk rate was his 7.1% mark on the season, and that’s not statistically significant. What was close to significant, though, was Price’s groundball rate, with a result as extreme as 50 of the 81 batted balls Price allowed in his last four starts staying on the ground occurring just 6.0% of the time if Price’s true groundball rate should have been his 53.1% mark on the year. We’d rather have it be 5.0% or lower to deem it truly significant, but it comes awfully close and it’s certainly something that’s worth looking into further. We’ll do that by looking at Price’s Pitch F/X data in September compared to his averages on the season using Brooks Baseball and see if can pinpoint exactly what helped Price raise his groundball rate so much. Here’s two charts comparing Price’s pitches in September to the rest of the season. 

Looking at the charts, we see a lot of things that are extremely similar- Price of course threw the same pitches at around the same velocities. Looking a little deeper, though, we say that Price made a big change in how he used his pitches, using his sinker 8% less while using his secondary pitches, his curveball and his changeup, 7% more and 3% more respectively. Price went away from his fastball quite a bit, relying more on his secondary pitches, and managing to use them extremely effectively. The third column tells us what we saw earlier, that Price really threw a ton of strikes in September as his walk rate dipped way down to just 1.5 per 9 innings in his last four starts, but what’s more interesting is the Whiff% and GB/FB numbers. Despite Price’s outstanding velocity on his sinker and also his cutter, he didn’t get very many swings-and-misses but instead focused on pounding the bottom of the zone, keeping the ball on the ground and keeping hitters extremely off-balance when he goes to his breaking pitches. Price realized that while the three varieties of his fastballs are all excellent pitches, he didn’t have to throw them a combined three-quarters of the time like he did in 2012 and could generate basically the same number of strikeouts and force more weak contact on the ground by using his secondary pitches more frequently. Price’s unbelievable strike-throwing ability in those four September starts isn’t something that’s going to last, and if Price starts using his curveball and changeup too often unnecessarily he’s going to find himself walking more batters. At the same time, though, Price’s newfound pitch balance gives him a chance to be even better as a pitcher, as crazy as that sounds given that he’s coming off a Cy Young season, and become a pitcher the caliber of Justin Verlander now and Roy Halladay in recent years. Price is making the classic transition from a thrower to a pitcher, and once he works out the kinks of his new approach, hitters won’t stand a chance.

What did David Price realize at the of 2012? He realized something so simple yet so incisive: that he doesn’t have to rear back and throw in the mid-90’s every pitch. Price’s fastball is an incredible pitch and will always remain his bread-and-butter, but his curveball and changeup have come along as two more plus pitches and by using them more often it can help him dominate hitters even more. It’s not as though Price is going from a hotshot with electric stuff to a thinking man’s pitcher in one day as he’s still going to throw his blistering 96 MPH fastball well over half the time, something he may have been alluding to when he said that most people won’t realize how he has evolved as a pitcher. But at the same time, Price has reached a turning point in his development and it’s scary to think that as good as Price has been the last few years, he could be just getting started.