Is It Time to Worry About David Price?

The Red Sox were a fairly popular pick to win the AL East entering this season. The continued maturation of their young position players combined with an improved starting rotation — fronted by big-ticket free-agent acquisition David Price — was the recipe for success.

Here we are, over a month into the campaign, and the Sox are battling the Orioles for the top spot in the division. The offense has been even more potent than expected, with David Ortiz fighting off father time and Xander Bogaerts taking the next step toward stardom. The pitching staff, however — with the exception of knuckleballing savior Steven Wright — haven’t gotten the memo. Price, in particular.

Price enters his start this evening with an AL-worst 6.75 ERA. It’s not like his stuff has evaporated: he still possesses a strong 53/12 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and his swinging-strike rate stands at a career best 14.1%. Today, let’s dig into some granular ball-in-play (BIP) data and draw some conclusions as to whether it’s OK to start worrying about Price.

Pitchers become truly great by a combining excellent K and BB rates with above-average contact-management ability. This combination is what makes Clayton Kershaw, Chris Sale and Jake Arrieta (to name three) stand out. Felix Hernandez resided in that class until recently, but his walk rate has softened the past season-plus.

David Price, Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg are three examples of pitchers who have reigned among the game’s K/BB elite while also encountering some difficulty on the contact-management front. Scherzer has developed a strong pop-up tendency and, generally speaking, has begun to better manage fly-ball contact. (And most recently has done his best to limit contact almost entirely.) Strasburg, meanwhile, has made strides in limiting authority on all BIP types.

Then there’s Price. He’s never been a poor contact-manager; in fact, he’s been quite average, producing Adjusted Contact Scores of 96, 96 and 98, respectively, over the past three seasons. What’s going on thus far in 2016? Let’s look at Price’s plate-appearance frequency and production by BIP type data to get a better feel. First, the frequency information:

Plate-Appearance Frequencies, 2016
Metric % REL PCT
K 29.0% 137 95
BB 6.6% 78 42
POP 1.8% 58 24
FLY 29.1% 93 38
LD 29.1% 142 95
GB 40.0% 88 23
———— ———— ———– ———–

Price retains a well above-average K rate, in the 95th percentile. But while his BB rate remains better than league average (42nd percentile), it isn’t nearly as much of a strength as it has been over the last three seasons, when he ranked in the 17th, 5th and 1st percentiles. The increase in his BB rate, while modest, does cut into his margin for error with regard to contact authority allowed.

Most above-average contact managers have a go-to frequency skill that drives their success, usually an extreme pop-up or ground-ball tendency. Price has never had one; as recently as 2012, he showed signs of becoming a ground-ball generator, but from 2013 to -15, he’s drifted toward the fly-ball side, with slightly above-average pop-up rate percentile ranks of 70, 65 and 60. This year, his pop-up rate percentile rank is in the tank, plunging to 24.

The big issue here is his unsightly line-drive rate, way up at 29.1%. The only surprise here is that two AL starters actually have higher liner rates allowed. This explains some, but not nearly all, of Price’s difficulties to date in 2016. The good news is that liner rates, unlike the other frequencies listed above, are quite variable from year to year for most pitchers. The bad news is that Price’s liner-rate percentile rank in 2015 was a similarly high 81. Price’s vulnerability to squared-up contact is becoming a thing.

The frequency data only tells us so much. Let’s take a look at the production by BIP type data to get a better feel for the authority allowed by Price this season:

Production by BIP Type, 2016
FLY 0.375 0.917 128 128
LD 0.714 0.943 116 107
GB 0.250 0.281 123 86
ALL BIP 0.395 0.614 144 131
ALL PA 0.269 0.318 0.419 102 95 6.75 4.08 2.95 3.78
———— ———— ———– ———– ———– ———– ———– ———– ———– ———–

The actual production allowed on each BIP type is indicated in the batting average (AVG) and slugging (SLG) columns, and is converted to run values and compared to MLB average in the REL PRD (or Unadjusted Contact Score) column. That figure is then adjusted for context, such as home park, team defense, luck, etc., in the ADJ PRD (or Adjusted Contact Score) column. For the purposes of this exercise, sacrifice hits (SH) and flies (SF) are included as outs and hit by pitches (HBP) are excluded from the on-base percentage (OBP) calculation.

One of the first noticeable aspects of the table above is the dearth of numbers below 100. This tells us what we probably already suspected: Price is allowing harder-than-average contact across the board. Hitters have recorded a lusty .375 AVG and .917 SLG on fly balls against Price thus far. Compared to the MLB average of .314 AVG-.839 SLG, that produces an Unadjusted Contact Score of 128. Fenway Park is one of the more hitter-friendly parks with regard to fly balls, so is that part of the reason for Price’s struggles? Well, no. Adjusted for exit speed/angle, Price’s Adjusted Contact Score on fly balls is exactly the same, at 128.

Just 7.0% of all MLB fly balls have been at hit at 105 mph or harder this season. Of the flies allowed by Price, 16.7% have exceeded the 105-mph mark. That’s a problem, as hitters bat .920 AVG-.3.428 SLG on such fly balls.

Price has also allowed greater than league-average damage on line drives, with a 116 Unadjusted Contact Score. Adjusted for context, he slips a little closer to league average, but still posts an Adjusted Contact Score of 107 on liners. On grounders, we can say that Price has been a bit unlucky: his Unadjusted Contact Score of 123 drops to 86 once adjusted for context.

On all BIP combined, hitters are batting .395 AVG-.614 SLG against Price — this, compared to the MLB average of .322 AVG-.521 SLG — for an awful overall Unadjusted Contact Score of 144. Unfortunately for Price, context doesn’t do him many favors; adjustment for exit speed/angle drops his overall Adjusted Contact Score only slightly, down to 131, a figure that would rank last among ERA qualifiers in most seasons.

Add back the Ks and BBs, and Price’s “tru” ERA is 3.78, slightly better than the MLB average ERA, — and obviously way better than his misleading 6.75 mark — but quite a bit higher than his 2.95 FIP. FIP doesn’t factor in the harder-than-average fly-ball and line-drive authority being allowed by Price.

So where do we go from here? As stated earlier, Price’s liner rate has nowhere to go but down, which will drive his “tru” ERA down from an already better-than-average mark. There’s some reason, however, to be concerned about the raw authority being allowed by Price.

We’ve already discussed the 105+ mph fly balls above. Overall, Price is allowing average authority of 91.2 mph on fly balls, harder than the MLB average of 90.1 mph, and up from 89.2 mph in 2015. Price is allowing an extremely high average authority of 95.0 mph on line drives, above the MLB average of 93.5 mph, and up from 92.5 mph in 2015. Just under 17% of all MLB line drives have been hit at 105 mph or higher this season; 25.7% of Price’s already inflated number of liners have exceeded that mark.

So David Price is allowing more liners, a trend that should regress, but allowing much harder fly-ball and liner contact than he has in the recent past. There’s no explicit reason to expect that to regress. It could be due in part to a loss of velocity on all of his pitches; all five of his primary offerings’ average velocity is down by about 2 mph this season. It clearly has something to do with Price’s inability to throw enough quality strikes. Price has never walked many, but his strikes have always tended to catch a little too much of the plate. There’s a big difference between control and command; Price has always been an ace in the former, but not the latter, category.

Don’t panic, Sox fans. We aren’t seeing the beginning of the end for Price. Take a step back — even with such horrible contact-management performance thus far in 2016, he’s still an above-average starting pitcher. He won’t ever, however, be a superior contact manager, and that will continue to keep him out of the game’s innermost circle of starting pitching elite. In fact, we may be watching his decline from a slightly above-average contact manager to a slightly below-average one, and from a 70-80 “tru” ERA- guy to an 80-90 one.

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
6 years ago

Is Betts still the greatest of all time?

6 years ago
Reply to  southie

Slim pickings these days, eh? The effort is appreciated.