David Price’s Playoff Problem Might Be a Cutter Problem

It’s perhaps easy to forget, given his postseason woes and the presence of a dominant left-handed rotation mate, but David Price remains, at age 33, among the premier starting pitchers in baseball. Price, in his career, owns a 3.34 FIP, 80 ERA-, and 82 FIP-. (For comparison’s sake, Justin Verlander is at a nearly identical 80 and 81, respectively.) Even in his injury-shortened 2018, Price still approached three wins, and his 24.5% strikeout rate in 2018 remains among top-25 marks in the major leagues.

Though he’s now a couple of years removed from his prime — during which he rattled off seven seasons of 4 WAR or more — he retains a five-pitch arsenal, three of which (fastball, cutter, and sinker) posted positive run values this year. He doesn’t throw as hard as he used to — Father Time is, after all, undefeated — but a 93 mph fastball and an above-average cutter and sinker should still be enough to get hitters out. They were, after all, during the regular season.

Except that, in his postseason career, David Price has posted a 133 ERA-, 115 FIP-, and -0.92 WPA. In 2018, in the postseason, Price has a 222 ERA- and 259 FIP-, “good” for a -0.38 WPA. In other words, David Price, regular-season ace, makes his teams worse in the playoffs. Price’s failures in the postseason are by now a well-known narrative. The Wall Street Journal’s Brian Costa and Jared Diamond called Price’s playoff misery one of “the Great Mysteries of October Baseball.” After the Sox’ October 6 loss to the Yankees in the Division Series, Bob Nightengale openly wondered if Price would even start again in the playoffs.

Let me start by saying that I am very much a lawyer, and not what one might term a “sabermetrician.” In other words, I profess no great or singular skill, unlike Dan Szymborski or Jeff Sullivan or Jay Jaffe. What I do have, on the other hand, is a healthy curiosity for this game we call “baseball,” and more specifically why things happen the way they do. Lawyers like patterns and predictability. We dislike anomalies. David Price is an anomaly.

It would be easy enough to dismiss Price’s playoff struggles as the result of a small-sample fluke ,and there’s undoubtedly small sample noise in the numbers. At the same time, however, we’ve now seen Price pitch 79.2 postseason innings, a span during which all of his numbers go backwards. His career 23.6 K% drops to 21.1%, and his K-BB% regresses from 17.3% to 14.7%. His 1.14 WHIP goes up to 1.29 — attributable almost entirely to added base hits, as his walk rate stays about the same (6.3% vs 6.5%). The problem is that his BABIP is almost identical (.287 regular season, .288 postseason), but opponents hit 20 points better against Price in the playoffs (.256 against .233), as a result of the batted balls that land beyond field of play. (They are frequently referred to as “home runs.”)

To be fair, that all may simply be a result of the better caliber of competition. And it’s worth noting that, thus far in his playoff career, Price has had a ridiculously low strand rate — just 65.9%, about ten percentage points lower than his career rate. That means that those hits Price has been allowing tend to do more damage, and it also means Price has gotten pretty unlucky, as that strand rate is too low to be sustainable. And if that were all there was, we could all go home secure in the knowledge that David Price is just the unluckiest playoff pitcher alive. But that’s not all there is.

In his career, David Price has allowed 192 homers. That’s a lot! But he’s allowed them in almost 2,000 innings, a rate of about 0.9 per 9. That’s actually really good! In his playoff career, David Price has allowed 15 homers… in 79.2 innings. That’s a rate of 1.69 per 9, which is not good. Looking at David Price’s career, every season where he’s appeared in the postseason except 2017 (where he made two appearances), he has allowed home runs at a higher rate than during the regular season.

Again, it would be easy to chalk this up to better competition, and some of it surely is because of that. But even if that’s the entire explanation, it’s probably worth understanding how that better competition has been beating Price.

As noted, the real difference between the Price of the regular season and the Price of the postseason is the home run. Over the course of his career, about 10% of Price’s fly balls have become home runs; in the postseason, that number increases by over half, to 16%. Why is that?

Again, we’re really only in a position to examine what has happened and not what will happen. In terms of what has happened, though, the following table is helpful. Per Brooks Baseball, the following table features Price’s pitch-usage and home-run data for both the regular season and playoffs.

Home-Run Rate by Pitch, Reg. Season vs. Playoffs
Pitch Reg% Post% Diff Reg HR% Post HR% Diff
Four-Seam 25.4% 28.5% 3.1% 0.51% 0.55% 0.04%
Sinker 34.4% 32.6% -1.8% 0.62% 1.44% 0.82%
Change 15.4% 13.3% -2.1% 0.63% 1.18% 0.55%
Slider 2.0% 3.6% 1.6% 1.33% 0.00% -1.33%
Curve 8.9% 7.3% -1.6% 0.79% 0.00% -0.79%
Cutter 13.8% 14.8% 0.9% 0.73% 2.65% 1.92%
SOURCE: Brooks Baseball
Reg% and Post% denoted usage rate in regular season vs. playoffs.

As you can see, Price’s pitch mix in the playoffs has been pretty similar to the pitch mix he’s utilized in the regular season. He’s thrown the four-seamer a little more and the changeup a little less. Nothing much there.

Relative to our area of interest, however — that is, the home run — the results are much different. Price has allowed home runs on about twice as many sinkers as usual and nearly four times as many cutters.

The cutter, in particular, has been troublesome. Of the last 11 postseason homers Price has conceded, five of them — or nearly half — have been against the cutter, even though he’s thrown the pitch only 15% of the time.

There was the cutter to Aaron Judge in Game Two of this year’s ALDS:

And shortly after that, the one to Gary Sanchez:

There was the one to Ben Zobrist in Game Six of the ALCS back in 2015:

And to Rougned Odor a couple weeks before that, in Game One of the ALDS:

And, finally, a first-inning cutter to David Ortiz in the 2013 ALDS, when Price was still a member of the Rays:

Even apart from the results, it’s probably fair to say that none of these are great pitches. Price hit the corner of the zone against Sanchez. The four other examples, however, all get a decent amount of the plate. But a lot of pitches get a decent amount of the late. Not every one of them in punished. And it’s not as though the cutter has been awful in other ways over the last five years. Price, for example, has recorded a slightly higher whiff rate on the pitch in the playoffs than regular season. Based on this data, it seems like the result of a few isolated mistakes as opposed to something systemic. It seems like Price should continue throwing the cutter like normal and hope that, when he misses his spots, he doesn’t miss over the plate.

At other points in his career, that would probably be the right course of action. At the moment, however, it’s worth noting a more recent trend regarding Price’s cutter. A curious thing has happened to it over the course of this year — namely, hitters stopped missing when they swing at it.

The trend has continued into October: against Price’s cutter in these playoffs, hitters are posting a .571 batting average and 1.000 slugging percentage against Price’s cutter (after posting a .256 average, .450 slugging percentage, and .194 isolated power against the pitch during the regular season). Right now, Price’s cutter isn’t fooling anybody.

But the solution with a failing pitch isn’t necessarily just to stop throwing it. Pitch mixes are their own unique ecosystems. If one element is removed, others can suffer. For Price, the cutter is the closest thing he has to a real breaking ball. (He hasn’t thrown a curve all postseason.) It’s also the pitch he threw most often to right-handers this year (32% of the time, just a bit more frequently than the sinker). Without it, he’d be just a fastball-changeup pitcher, albeit with two fastballs.

That said, maybe scrapping the cutter in favor of greater changeup usage could work. Price’s change garnered a 19% whiff rate this year against right-handed batters — more than twice what any of his other pitches recorded against the same hand — despite posting a slightly negative run value. Price has actually underutilized the change this postseason — which could be a product of specific matchups, sure — but it appears as though it might have some use as an alternative to the cutter.

The changeup has the added benefit of changing hitters’ eye levels without being as contact-prone as the sinker; mixing fastballs up and down in the zone with a low changeup seems, to this amateur pitching coach, like a solid plan. If anything, Price can’t really be any worse in the playoffs.

Carson Cistulli was supremely helpful in the composition of this post.

Sheryl Ring is a litigation attorney and General Counsel at Open Communities, a non-profit legal aid agency in the Chicago suburbs. You can reach her on twitter at @Ring_Sheryl. The opinions expressed here are solely the author's. This post is intended for informational purposes only and is not intended as legal advice.

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Nice job, Sheryl.