A quick check of the pitching leaderboards for qualified starters reveals an unsettling fact for the Red Sox: David Price has the second-worst ERA in baseball. Cue the alarm bells! The Sox paid for an ace, and instead, they’ve gotten the exact opposite of an ace — as far as outcomes are concerned, at least. Seven starts into the season, some element of worry has to be merited, right? The answer is yes, of course, because an ERA of almost seven for a No. 1 starter after over a month of games has to be worrying. Price has been terrible, and if you’re worrying about him or would like to, that’s probably merited. The reason why we’re here is to look into whether his performance thus far is grounds to for worry in the future, as well: though Price can’t get any of his clunkers back from the past seven starts, we can certainly look into whether those clunkers might presage future clunkers.
First, let’s start with the bad news, because it’s always better to end with good news. The bad news has been right there in front of us in every single one of Price’s starts this season, flashed up on a board in the stadium or on our TV screens during every pitch: his velocity is down. Way down. Lowest it’s ever been. That’s worrisome not only because velocity loss leads to a smaller margin of error, but also because velocity loss is the most visible indicator of injury. The drop captured in the red box in the chart below — depicting Price’s velocity by month from 2011 to 2016 — ought usually to inspire some concern (chart courtesy of Brooks Baseball):
We tend to look at a few data points when this happens, starting with ones related to workload: Price has pitched 180-plus innings in every full year he’s been in the majors (starting in 2010), and that is both testament to his durability and an indication that he has some mileage on his arm. Previous good health is one of the best predictors of future good health, but there’s probably now a question about Price’s multi-year wear and, potentially, his short-term wear: in addition to the consecutive years of innings he’s pitched, he tossed a combined 243.2 innings between the regular season and the playoffs during 2015. That’s a lot of innings, and it’s no wonder some are pointing to that as a reason for his decreased velocity, and subsequently his poor performance.
There’s an issue with some of that narrative, however, and it’s that pitchers who have previously had extended postseason workloads haven’t shown an ERA or FIP drop off in the following season when compared to league average. Every pitcher’s physiology is different, but on average, there isn’t a lot of support for the notion that a guy is worse the year after he pitched a full campaign plus an extended postseason. That doesn’t make us feel totally better about what’s going on, but it’s something.
The good news regarding the velocity decline is that Price isn’t really showing any of the other indicators we use that hint at injury. Baseball Heat Maps features pitcher injury factor charts that provide information about overall velocity, late-game velocity inconsistency, changes in rate of pitches in the strike zone, and variance in release point. By using all of them, we can get a better picture of a guy’s overall health — and Price isn’t showing much outside of normal variations in anything besides his diminished velocity. You know about the velocity decline, but here are the relevant graphs of the other indicators, dating from the start of 2013 all the way through his most recent starts of 2016. The 2016 starts are highlighted in a red box, and you can click each image to enlarge:
The charts are a little bit daunting due to the sheer number of dates, lines, and colors, but we can generally see that nothing in those red boxes is really out of the ordinary when compared to the past few years. And, now that we don’t have a lot of evidence for injury, we need to look for another reason behind Price’s velocity decline. It could just be fatigue, but both Price and the Red Sox have been quick to quash that notion. And, given what just came out in Sunday’s Boston Herald, it could be mechanical. Here’s what Price said following his most recent start on Saturday against the Yankees, about his windup mechanics:
“Whenever my knee goes up, I want my hands to go up. Whenever my knee goes back down, I want my hands to go back down.”
While standing at his locker for 10 minutes, Price showed reporters how his hands have stayed too far down.
“That’s not allowing me to get my full leg lift,” Price said. “It’s been about a half of a leg lift of what I’m used to, and it takes away the rhythm of what I do out there on the mound. And whenever my hands stay (down) I have to be able to time it up perfect for me to be able to execute that pitch. It gives me no margin of error, because I don’t have that rhythm.”
There’s the same concept in hitting, called matching: syncing the movements of the upper and lower body in some way to maintain rhythm and consistency. So let’s look to see if Price (and/or Dustin Pedroia, who first noticed the problem) is onto something here — and if this could be a relatively simple matter of tweaking his mechanics. I watched a few innings of a game from early September of 2015, when Price was averaging almost 95 mph on his fastball, and compared it to his most recent starts against the Yankees. Specifically, I was looking for the height of the leg lift and the position of the hands. I took screenshots of two pitches, both four-seam fastballs, right at the top of the left lift. Take a look at 2015 (left) versus 2016 (right):
We can only sum up so much in two screenshots, and the difference between the two is remarkably small. But the leg lift does seem to be just a little bit higher in the pitch from last year, and there’s more of a right angle that we can draw between the right leg and the driving left leg. Problems abound with this sort of analysis, including camera angles, the author’s lack of experience as a professional pitcher or pitching coach, etc. The main takeaway should be that Price believes there’s a mechanical issue, that it’s easily fixable, and there’s perhaps some evidence he’s onto something. Is the mechanical issue sapping 2-plus mph from his fastball? That’s the big question that’s going to be answered over his next few starts.
The mechanical issues got me wondering whether Price is hitting his spots as much this year, so I turned to Bill Petti’s Edge%, which measures the rate of a pitches on the edges of the plate verus over the heart. Take a look at Price’s Edge% in 2015 verus 2016:
|Year||Horizontal Edge%||Top Edge%||Bottom Edge%||Total Edge%||Heart%||Out of Zone%||Edge/Heart Ratio|
Price is hitting more horizontal and total edges than last season, while leaving fewer pitches over the heart of the plate. He’s hitting his spots! Case closed, right? Well, not exactly, because that doesn’t tell the whole story of where and when Price is executing, and where and when he’s missing. The difference is in his execution in the windup verus the stretch. Basically everyone gets worse when they go to their stretch delivery with men on base (Carlos Carrasco, who only pitches from the stretch, is excluded), but the difference in outcomes for Price this season when he has no runners on base verus runners on is staggering. Take a look at his fly-ball rate, contact quality, and Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP) with the bases empty, runners on, and runners in scoring position:
|Men on Base||41.5%||12.3%||43.9%||43.9%||.352|
|Men In Scoring||51.5%||2.9%||47.1%||50.0%||.438|
Out of the stretch, Price has been giving up way more fly balls, and lots of them are being hit really hard — especially with runners in scoring position. That hard contact is part of what’s driving the hugely inflated BABIP, and it’s a big reason he’s given up so many runs. There’s a pretty obvious cause for it, too, illustrated by these two graphs depicting Price’s average pitch locations with the bases empty verus with runners on (heat map courtesy of Baseball Savant):
The difference is small, but it’s there: out of the windup (no men on base), Price has, on average, put the ball in the lower half of the zone on the outside corner to righties. Out of the stretch (men on base), his pitches have had more of a tendency to leak up in the zone and more toward the center of the plate. That’s a good way to increase your rate of fly balls and hard contact, and it’s a really good way of giving up more runs. By this read of the situation, Price might be looking at his mechanics and pitch location out the stretch as much as he is out of the windup, as that’s where his big problems with execution have been so far.
Now we’re getting a more fully formed picture of what’s going on. A lot of velocity drop, a possible mechanical issue, pitches left over the plate with runners on base: they make holistic sense for what we’ve seen in Price’s first seven starts, and if anything, they should probably encourage us. As the weather warms up, velocity naturally increases. Mechanics can be fixed, especially for an ace who doesn’t shy away from tinkering with his arsenal and delivery. Price should be fine.
Remember we were going to end with good news? Aside from any velocity or mechanical problem, there’s also a blatantly obvious cause for Price’s gaudy ERA: bad timing and poor batted-ball outcomes. He currently has the lowest strand rate among all qualified starters in baseball, at 54.2%. Almost half of the runners that Price has put on base have come around to score, which is an absurd, unsustainable level. We know this has never really been a problem for him in the past — he’s never run a strand rate over 70% during a whole season — so the easy money would be on regression toward his career average of 74.3%. Couple that with the second-highest BABIP among qualified starters (we should start noticing a trend here), and we have all of the indicators that Price’s outcomes will start snapping back in line toward expectations sooner rather than later. As we’ve seen, some of that strand rate and BABIP has been his failure to execute out of the stretch, but even that failure can’t drive the poor fortune Price has been on the end of.
If anything, a lot of Price’s peripheral stats still point toward dominance. His strikeout rate of 29% would be a career-high, and though his walk rate is slightly elevated (6.6%, vs. 5.3% in 2015 and 3.8% in 2013-2014), it’s still below league average, leading to the seventh-best K-BB% among starters in baseball. Elite strikeout and walk rates tend to beget elite run prevention (barring extreme batted-ball behavior, to which Price has never been inclined), so that’s another win in his column. Most of the signs are really good here. Even the bad signs that we’ve seen today could be construed as good, if anyone was worried about a serious injury. Maybe Price truly is fatigued from last year. Maybe he will start showing signs of an injury. More likely, however, is that he just needs a tweak — and a little bit of luck.
Owen Watson writes for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. Follow him on Twitter @ohwatson.