David Price’s Peculiar Problem

I like when the analysis doesn’t have to get too low into the weeds. Yesterday, I wrote a little bit about the impressive Sean Newcomb. What makes Newcomb so impressive, at least for now? He’s throwing more strikes than he used to. In the minors, he had a strike problem. In the majors, he hasn’t had a strike problem. What could be simpler than that? Everybody knows what a strike is, and everybody understands how throwing more strikes is generally better for someone. I don’t know why Newcomb’s strikes have improved, but his mechanics look clean. So be it.

There are more than 200 pitchers who have thrown at least 500 pitches in the majors in each of the last two seasons. The biggest strike-rate improvement currently belongs to Craig Kimbrel. Behind him are Archie Bradley and Jimmy Nelson. They’ve all been terrific. Turning around, the biggest strike-rate decline currently belongs to Wade Miley, followed by Cole Hamels and David Price. Miley isn’t real good. Hamels had an injury. Price is our focus today. He’s long been a strike-thrower, up until now.

It’s interesting enough that Price has struggled to throw strikes for the first time in forever. Ditto pitches in the zone. There’s an obvious link between the two. But this doesn’t seem like just a regular story about a pitcher losing it. Price has only partially lost it.

It’s a little bit surprising Price is even pitching at all. A few months ago, he had that elbow scare, and it did send him to the sidelines. From the sounds of things, Price’s elbow is fine, not that you can ever know for sure from the outside. He has at least the regular wear and tear. And, for all I know, Price has had a tougher time just because of that very elbow. I don’t think it’s that easy, but it can’t be dismissed.

Price has started six games, throwing 34 innings. He has what would be his highest-ever walk rate. He has what would be his second-lowest strikeout rate, and he has what would be his lowest zone rate. Unsurprisingly, he has what would be his lowest strike rate. Price hasn’t been *bad,* but he hasn’t been normal. And here’s where the fun stuff begins. What’s been nagging David Price? He throws two fastballs, a cutter, a changeup, and a curveball. The fastballs, by and large, have been fine. The secondary pitches have been wild. Far wilder than ever.

I’ve got a whole bunch of plots to prove it! I’ve grouped together Price’s two fastballs. I’ve also grouped his cutter, changeup, and curve. They’re labeled as fastballs and non-fastballs. You get it. All the line plots cover the 8.5 years from 2009 through to the present, and here’s the first. Here are Price’s general usage patterns:

Price used to lean heavily on his fastballs, but he dropped his fastball rate over time, as his other pitches improved. As recently as 2010, three in four Price pitches were heaters. Last season, he came in just under one in two. This year, there’s been a bounceback. Price is throwing more fastballs — not a ton more fastballs, but it’s a difference of 10 percentage points. Price is back close to 2012 usage, and that would be interesting on its own, but it seems like there’s a reason. Price isn’t mixing things up from last year in an effort to keep the hitters guessing. I think he has reduced faith in his secondary weapons. Here’s why:

One of those lines has stayed the same. The other line has plummeted. And I mean plummeted. Price’s fastball zone rate has not budged at all. He’s still getting the majority of his heaters somewhere over the plate. When he hasn’t thrown a heater, though, his zone rate has gone down by 19 percentage points. That’s crazy. I’ve never quite seen something like this. Price’s previous low was 45%. Right now, he’s sitting at 30%. The zone rate is way down on his cutter, it’s way down on his changeup, and it’s way down on his curve. They’ve all been missing more and more often, and they haven’t compensated by getting a ton of extra chases. As such, Price’s secondary pitches have stopped yielding consistent strikes:

That plot follows from the one before. Price’s fastballs are still strikes. They’re still strikes more than two-thirds of the time. As for the non-fastballs, the strike rate has dropped from 68% to 55%. Price’s previous low was 61%, when he was in his first full year. That’s when he still leaned heavily on his heaters. Back then, Price didn’t trust his non-fastballs to get him a strike, and so far this year the situation’s been worse. A lot worse, in fact, given the narrow range in which you find ordinary strike rates. A handful of percentage points in either direction is massive.

So, this won’t surprise you, but Price’s fastballs have been helpful, and his non-fastballs have not been helpful. You know about our pitch-type run values. You also presumably know they’re not perfect, but they’re functional, and what I did was calculate combined pitch-group run values on a per-start basis.

Fastballs: fine! Non-fastballs: worse than ever! I don’t love run-value analysis like this, especially based on just six starts, but this does follow from everything we’ve looked at before. Price has been too wild with his three non-fastballs, and so of *course* the combined run value is negative. Strikes and outs are good. Balls are bad. He’s thrown so many balls.

Time to take some information from Baseball Savant. How has Price been missing, or not missing? In this plot, you see Price’s average vertical pitch locations, in feet, where the middle of the average strike zone is typically around 2.5.

David Price’s fastballs, again, look kind of the same. But he’s thrown his average non-fastball lower than ever. In recent years, the typical Price non-fastball was about five or six inches lower than the typical fastball. The current separation is a little over 10 inches. That’s far bigger than ever before, and it suggests that, while Price has kept his fastballs where he normally has, too many of those other pitches have sailed by below the shins. These heat maps help to give you a further idea:

The fastballs haven’t moved very much. Anything and everything in there is subtle. The other half of this is less subtle. Those non-fastballs are more down, and beyond that, they’ve also, on average, gone more to Price’s glove-side. More inside on righties. Price used to keep a lot of those pitches away, but it’s as if he’s been overthrowing them, or gripping them too hard. The locations have changed dramatically, and I don’t know why Price would’ve intended to do something like that, given how long he was successful pitching as he used to.

That’s all the data. It’s convincing, in conveying that something is off. It’s less helpful when trying to put together a diagnosis, and I can’t tell you *why* Price has pitched like he has. I’ve never really observed this phenomenon in somebody else. It could in some way be connected to Price’s elbow issues. It could be plain and simple rust — Price’s season got off to a late start. Extra interesting, however, is that Price has dealt with a blister, and also with a cracked fingernail. Those are, at the very least, uncomfortable irritants, and it’s possible they’ve messed with Price’s ability to apply the usual grips and pressure. Fastballs require the least technique, you could say, so that could potentially explain the difference we’ve highlighted. And, naturally, there could be any number of other possible explanations. None of these posts ever get to be conclusive. We get to highlight and speculate. It’s on the players and the teams to be more specific and constructive. This is on Price and the Red Sox to figure out.

Because of Price’s track record, I assume he can and will figure it out. But this — this hasn’t been like him. And this version of David Price simply isn’t all that good. He’s too important to that team to not be a central focus for the coaching staff. The Red Sox are going to need a more familiar David Price if they intend to hang with the AL elites.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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5 years ago

Maybe he’s pretending it’s the playoffs?