The news is in. As Rob Bradford reported late last week, Boston lefty David Price will only miss seven to ten days with an elbow strain and won’t require surgery for the moment. That’s fortunate for the Red Sox, as the loss of Price would immediately have tested the club’s somewhat suspect depth.
Before news of Price’s injury surfaced, I was looking at his 2016 campaign to see what was amiss. It looks like the cutter was a big part of the problem. Given what happened on that pitch, and the information we now possess about Price’s elbow, it’s possible we can understand Price’s 2016 season much better.
Price used his cutter more often in 2016 than ever before. It’s difficult to understand why, though. The whiff rate on the pitch hit a three-year low, and the isolated slugging percentage allowed on the cutter was the worst of Price’s career. That pitch also featured the worst drop of his career at a time when his sinker and four-seam actually demonstrated greater drop.
There might be many reasons for Price’s meh work last season, but the cutter really stands out — and, in particular, the location of the cutter. Over the last few years, the average horizontal location on the cutter to righties has shifted more than six inches. Take a look at the cutter’s heat maps over the last two years, and it seams to show how he’s changed his approach.
Price, in the past, has made the plate feel 20 inches wider by being able to nail that spot high and outside that you see in the 2015 heat map. Last year, though, it seems Price was unable to hit that same spot with regularity. He started throwing the cutter down broad street. Still in the zone, but not in good spots inside the zone.
We see the outcomes, but we don’t know why this happened.
The first thing that might come to mind is that he’s switching up the approach on the pitch. The cutter is normally used to pitch inside to opposite-handed hitters. The thinking is that it bores in on their hands and makes the sinker away more effective, and that it does so without the risk of dropping into a hitter’s wheelhouse low and in like a slider might. No pitch was used inside as often to opposite-handed hitters as the cutter was last year.
More than a fifth of all cutters thrown to opposite-handed hitters ended up crossing the plate on the inside third of the plate and in. Maybe his pitching coach thought Price could keep righties off his sinker by busting them inside with the cutter. It’s an idea, and an idea that the Pirates have shown has merit in their research, but an idea that carries less weight for Price in particular, given the heat maps above.
Another possibility is that Price has lost some of his command. He has enough control to throw the cutter over the plate, but not enough command to hit his spots. Baseball Prospectus has a command stat — called strike probability — and Price did well in 2016 (25th among qualified starters) but he was elite the year before (fifth). On the other hand, Jeff Long at Baseball Prospectus was kind enough to pull a command stat of theirs that measures how often the pitcher can hit the corners, and Price actually improved there from 2015 to 2016.
But if command is equal parts confidence, mechanics, and athleticism — the confidence to throw it in the zone, clean mechanics that are repeatable, and the athleticism to keep all the body parts in the right places — we now know that one part of the equation may have been off for the lefty starter last season. Maybe the pitcher was hurting, and that was part of his inability to hit the same spots with his cutter.
Ask insiders what they learned when they got in the game, as I did at baseball’s Winter Meetings, and at least one will say “Every pitcher is injured at all times; it’s just how much they can handle” as one insider told me off the record. When a ligament ruptures, it doesn’t do so all at once — David Price may have been hurting a little more than normal last year, and it may have hurt his cutter command. In that way, let’s find a little hope in today’s news. He can get it right with some rest, hopefully, and come back with the cutter he once enjoyed.
With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.