The Evolution of David “Tinkerbell” Price

For the past three season, James Shields and David Price have battled it out for the status of ace of the Rays’ staff. The title has flopped back and forth between the two of them, with Price gaining the upper-hand in 2010 but relinquishing his hold slightly this season, but there’s one aspect of the game that Shields has always trumped Price in: nicknames.

Shields has seemingly rotated through a new nickname each season. He was “Big Game James” after his performance in the postseason in 2008, and then christened “Yields” in 2010 due to his homer-happy tendencies; this season, he’s been dubbed “Juego G” due to his complete game prowess.* And Price? He’s never had a nickname that stuck for long, besides for a brief bit of time in 2008 when he was lovingly known as Velociraptor Jesus.

But after improving himself as a pitcher for the third straight season — just look at the trend in his FIP and SIERA scores — it’s about time Price was rewarded with a nickname. And so, without further ado, I’d like to bestow upon Price the much-fought-after nickname “Tinkerbell”.

And before you ask, no, I’m not trying to cast aspersions about Price’s manhood. The nickname simply fits. Price can do magical things on the mound with the baseball, but more than that, he tinkers with his pitch selection more than any other pitcher I know. Even though he was selected #1 in the 2007 Draft and has since developed into an ace starter, Price has changed his pitch repertoire and selection multiple, multiple times since first reaching the majors. It’s as though he has this compulsive urge to keep innovating and adapting….or he just gets bored really quickly.

So how exactly has Price changed over the years? What’s his current pitch selection, and how does he attack hitters now? Let’s take a look.

*Don’t ask me to explain why. It just is.

Before this season started, Pitch F/x mastermind Mike Fast took a look at Price’s evolution as a pitcher over at The Process Report. Even though TPR has since folded up shop, you can still read some of the text online. Fast gets into many more details than I can possibly cover, but the basic path of Price’s development is easy to follow. When Price first broke into the majors as a starter in 2009, he was primarily a two-trick pony: he threw a four-seam fastball and a slider. He threw the fastball around 70% of the time and the slider around 30% of the time, but as the season went along and he had limited success, he decided to change things up a bit:

Since I’m horrible with buckets and Price’s two-seamer got misclassified frequently in 2009, I’m taking the two-seam estimates from RZ’s past research.

As you can see, Price threw fewer and fewer four-seam fastballs and sliders as the year went along. He added a two-seam fastball to his repertoire around halfway into the year, and he tried out using both his changeup and curveball extensively at different times. At the time, Price had reportedly lost the “feel” for his slider early in the season, necessitating adding another breaking pitch to his repertoire, but the Rays also wanted Price to add other pitches so he could become a more complete pitcher (and a more successful starter).

Also, there’s pretty solid evidence out there that the Rays tell their pitchers to stop throwing sliders frequently. This isn’t the place to get into the full breakdown, but just look at how Matt Garza is pitching this season and compare it to his time with the Rays. Interesting trend, huh?

So by the end of the season, Price had changed from throwing primarily his four-seamer and slider into a four-seam, two-seam, and other junk guy. He was still working on refining his curveball, but it had looked like a legitimate weapon at times late in the season. And by the time the 2009 season opened up, he was ready to break that curve out as his primary breaking ball:

For simplicity’s sake, I have left Price’s slider and changeup off the above chart. He also threw both pitches, but he would only throw at most a handful per start; in total, the two pitches accounted for 10% of his pitch selection on the year. Of the two pitches, his changeup saw the most use; Price started off the season using his slider around 7-10% of the time, but by the end of the year, he was hardly throwing it at all and going multiple starts without using it. For all intents and purposes, it looked as though his slider — his best weapon when drafted back in 2007 — was dead.

Instead, Price pumped heat at hitters, throwing his four- and two-seam fastballs 75% of the time, while using his newly refined spike curve to keep hitters off balance and put them away. And if that wasn’t enough, Price messed around his two-seam fastball a few times during the course of the season. His two-seamer sat around 90-91 MPH in 2009 and the beginning of 2010, but Price dialed that back midway through the season and threw it around 87-88 MPH instead. Late in the season, Price then scrapped that and started throwing his two-seamer just as hard as his four-seam fastball (which had slowly increased in velocity and now averaged around 95 MPH).

Would these trends continue into 2011? Kinda, but not entirely. Since the charts are noisy, let’s look at just his fastballs first:

Once again, I want to stress that I’m no expert at parsing out two- and four-seamers. I gave it a shot, but then figured I’d simply present the data as classified by Joe Lefkowitz’s site. Mike Fast commented in his piece that Price favored his two-seamer over his four-seamer by the end of 2010, so I wouldn’t be surprised if these charts above are underrepresenting the amount of two-seam fastballs that Price has thrown. At the least, he’s throwing it as often as his four-seam fastball; most likely, he’s throwing it even more often.

The two-seamer has become a very effective pitch for Price, and by adding velocity to it, he’s turned it into his best pitch at inducing ground balls. As his two-seam use has gone up, so has Price’s groundball rate; it now sits at 45%, the highest mark of his career. Price has stuck with the higher velocity two-seam fastball all season, and it seems to be working out well for him.

Now, the breaking balls:

If this looks confusing, don’t worry – that’s because it is. Price hasn’t followed any one pattern or relied on any one breaking pitch more than others; he’s using all three of his breaking balls at around the same rate. Price has doubled his changeup use from last season (12% currently), and he’s throwing both his curveball and slider just under 10% of the time.

That slider that was supposedly dead? It’s back with a vengeance this season, and Price has used it more and more frequently as the season has progressed. While he used to throw his slider around 87-88 MPH, over the later half of this season he’s cranked it up to around 90-91 MPH instead and has seen good results so far.

So as it stands right now, Price throws his two- and four-seam fastball around 95 MPH, his slider around 90-91 MPH, his spike curve in the high 70s, and his changeup around 83-84 MPH. He’s improved his two-seam fastball so that it’s his primary pitch (and it’s a good weapon for inducing ground balls); he’s refined his changeup and spike curveball; and he’s seemingly reinvented his missing slider.

What will Price’s next step be? Has he finally reached a mix that he’s comfortable with, or will he continue to tinker with his pitches next season? Darned if I know. My guess is he’s reached some sort of stability, as it appears he’s been very effective working primarily off his two-seam fastball. He’ll likely keep mixing up his breaking ball use depending upon which pitch he feels the best with at the moment, but he’s now turned himself from a two-trick pony into a five-card stud.

But then again, who knows? Price seems to have a very active personality — if his Twitter account is any indication — and maybe he’ll get bored during the offseason and enter 2012 with a knuckleball and gyroball to boot. Or maybe he’ll decide to ditch his changeup and curveball entirely and go back to his roots with a fastball/slider combo. At this point, I wouldn’t put anything past Tinkerbell.

We hoped you liked reading The Evolution of David “Tinkerbell” Price by Steve Slowinski!

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Steve is the editor-in-chief of DRaysBay and the keeper of the FanGraphs Library. You can follow him on Twitter at @steveslow.

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Correction: James Shields got his nickname before the 2008 playoffs. As Joe Posnanski points out, he had the nickname before he threw in a big game: