David Price and the Art of the Three-Pitch Strikeout

David Price is known for some things. Most notably, he’s known for being a pitcher. A pitcher for the Detroit Tigers. Beyond that, he’s known for some more specific things within pitching. He’s known for being one of the best. He’s known for having a really great changeup. He’s known for being one of the best because of his elite ability to command his pitches and not walk anybody. He’s known for throwing a ton of innings and consistently working deep into games. And, as of lately, he’s known for becoming an elite strikeout pitcher.

Sometimes, those last two things can work against each other. When you think about throwing a lot of innings and working deep into games, you think about pitch count. Pitch counts have to remain relatively low for one to consistently work deep. Only Clayton Kershaw and Adam Wainwright have more complete games since the start of 2012 than Price, so clearly, he does a good job of this. The biggest reason is the walk rate. Price never gives hitters the free pass, which is one of the most important things about keeping a pitch count low. But Price also strikes a ton of guys out, which is something that can drive a pitch count up. You can’t get a strikeout on the first pitch, and at-bats that end in a strikeout often require five or more pitches.

Unless you do it like David Price.

Every baseball website that has its own leaderboards keeps tracks of the important things. The ERAs, the innings pitched, the homers. But one thing I love about all the different sites are the little stats unique to each site. Overall at Baseball-Reference, they’ve got a stat called “3pK.” It stands for three-pitch strikeout. Sort that leaderboard and at the top you find Price, with 68. Second is Kershaw, at 62, and after him is Stephen Strasburg with 57. Sort that leaderboard for the two seasons before that and you find the same guy at the top each year. It’s not Price, but it is Cliff Lee, and the Price/Lee comparison is one that’s easy to make and has been made before.

David Price threw more innings than any pitcher in 2014 while posting the highest strikeout rate of his career. The three-pitch strikeout is one way to successfully be a high-strikeout, high-workload pitcher, and David Price had it down.

At this very moment, we have more information about baseball than we’ve literally ever had in the past, so let’s use it. Thanks to the work of the amazing Jeff Zimmerman, I’ve got pitch sequence data for 65 of Price’s 68 three-pitch strikeouts this season, so we can get an idea of how Price works his magic. Price throws five different pitches, so there’s 37 different combinations. For the sake of brevity, I’ll only show you the sequences that appeared more than once:

Sequence Frequency
FT-FT-FT 8
FT-CT-FT 4
FF-FF-FF 3
FF-FT-FT 3
CU-CT-FT 3
FT-FT-CT 3
FT-FT-FF 2
FT-CU-FT 2
FT-CU-CT 2
FT-CT-CH 2
FT-CH-FT 2
CH-FT-FT 2
CH-CU-FT 2
CH-CH-FF 2
CU-FT-FT 2
FF-FT-CT 2

This table tells us some things, but it could tell us more. Rather than differentiate between Price’s two fastballs, which both go 94mph, let’s combine them and re-produce that same table to make it a bit more meaningful:

Sequence Frequency
FB-FB-FB 18
FB-FB-CT 5
FB-CT-FB 4
CU-CT-FB 4
CH-CH-FB 3
CH-CU-FB 3
CH-FB-FB 3
FB-CH-FB 3
FB-CU-FB 3
FB-CU-CT 2
FB-CT-CH 2
CH-FB-CT 2
CU-FB-FB 2

This gives us a better idea of how Price works, and that idea is clear. You look at the top of that table and you see 18 instances this season where David Price threw three fastballs to a batter and struck him out. You look down the table at the third pitch in each sequence and you see almost exclusively fastballs. Fastball command is the cliche, go-to response when you ask a professional pitcher about his performance after a game, but it’s a cliche for a reason – because it really does start and end with the fastball. And when you can throw it as well as Price, you get the kind of results Price gets.

I knew Price was a fastball-heavy guy, but this seemed a little extreme. I wanted to look a little more into Price’s fastball usage in 0-2 counts, so I navigated myself over to the great BaseballSavant PITCHf/x search and did some digging. Pitchers make some adjustments when they get to two strikes. We know that. But not all two-strike counts are made the same. Are there different adjustments within different two-strike counts? Here’s Price in 2014:

1-2, 2-2, 3-2 counts

  • Fastball: 53%
  • Cutter: 23%
  • Change: 18%
  • Curveball 6%

0-2 counts

  • Fastball: 65%
  • Cutter: 20%
  • Change: 10%
  • Curveball 5%

I’m not inside the head of David Price, so I can’t definitively tell you why he does the things he does. But from an outsider’s perspective, it seems like when Price gets a hitter down 0-2, he realizes an opportunity and attacks it. Oftentimes, you’ll see a pitcher throw a breaking ball in the dirt or an elevated fastball way out of the zone in an 0-2 count. They’re in a great spot, and even with a ball they’d still be in a great spot, so they feel like they have a pitch to “waste.” When Price gets into an 0-2 count, he’s not messing around. He’s coming at you with a fastball, and he wants the at-bat over as soon as possible. Ninth-inning David Price thanks third-inning David Price for not wasting that 0-2 pitch.

Numbers are great, but it’s nice to be able to visualize these things that we learn, so here come some gif sequences of three-pitch David Price strikeouts from 2014, all on fastballs, picked pretty much at random.

Three called, on Trevor Plouffe. This sequence probably has more to do with Plouffe, but Price still commanded three consecutive pitches, which is necessary for a three-pitch strikeout:

price1_1

price1_2

price1_3

An example of Price not messing around after getting Jon Singleton down 0-2. This sequence is classic Price:

price3_1

price3_2

price3_3

These are the kind of sequences that allow a pitcher to consistently work into the 8th and 9th innings while racking up strikeouts. David Price knows what he’s doing out there. There are many reasons why Price is able to throw so many innings at such a high level, and this is just one of them. But only Phil Hughes and Jordan Zimmermann got the first pitch strike more than Price in 2014. After that, nobody got to 0-2 as often as Price. It makes sense, then, that nobody got the three-pitch strikeout as often as Price. Often times, guys that rack up a lot of strikeouts rack up a high pitch count as well. Often times, working efficiently can be equated to pitching to contact. As we can see, David Price plays by his own rules.





August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at august.fagerstrom@fangraphs.com.

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tz

“Ninth-inning David Price thanks third-inning David Price for not wasting that 0-2 pitch.”

Awesome way of putting it.