FANTASY BASEBALL – What’s Wrong With David Price?
Since the beginning of 2012 there have been just three pitchers who have thrown 900+ innings with a FIP below 3.00: Clayton Kershaw, Felix Hernandez, and David Price. That stat is not only a testament to that trio’s skill and longevity, but, maybe most importantly, their consistency. There was a reason that Price, even in his new, hitter-friendly Boston home, was a clear Top 10 SP in NFBC formats. There was a reason people were willing to spend as high as a second round pick. David Price is safe – was safe. But that’s yet to be the case in 2016.
Through seven starts in the new season Price has posted a 6.75 ERA over 41.1 innings, ranking outside the Top 100 SP in standard 5×5 Yahoo! leagues. Even more recently, the lefty has surrendered 22 earned runs across his last 23.1 frames, good for a robust 8.49 ERA. Now, a quick, cursory look at his FanGraphs page answers a lot of questions within a matter of moments, but still creates confusion. Price has a 2.95 FIP. A direct result of a great deal of terrible luck. Not only does the Red Sox have baseball’s lowest strand rate at a minuscule 54.2% entering play on May 11th, but he also possesses it’s third highest BABIP at a .373 clip. The latter might be somewhat justified when considering Price’s opponent hard contact rate sits at a dangerous 41.2%, but one must also factor that in his entire career, one that has spanned nearly 1,500 innings, Price has never finished a season with a Hard% above 29%. In fact, of the 103 pitchers to qualify, Price’s 3.80 ERA/FIP disparity is the highest in the league with Adam Wainwright the only other pitcher to even have a figure above two runs (2.08). So, lucky bounces aside, what’s the real issue?
Strangely enough, to find the answer, we must first delve into the inconsistencies that have been apparent in Price’s lone positive from the 2016 campaign so far – his strikeout totals. At 11.54 strikeouts per nine, the 30 year-old is by far setting down more batters via strike three than he has ever before to this point in his career, but the results aren’t the truly strange thing – it’s how he’s obtaining them. Yes, at 14.1% Price is currently one of just four starting pitchers to have a swinging strike rate above 14%, along with Noah Syndergaard, Jose Fernandez, and the aforementioned Kershaw, but, unlike those three, who each possess an O-Contact rate below 46%, Price’s 65.4% figure is far more aligned with the league average. Instead Price thrives by living in the zone. A massive 20 of Price’s 53 strikeouts are looking this season, a large 37.7% rate considering that, back in 2013, just 24% of strikeouts league wide were of the called variety. Still, this isn’t exactly a new style for Price. In fact, in that same 2013 season, according to Peter Gammons, the then Tampa Bay Ray was third in baseball with 67 called third strikes. However, in 2013, Price’s strikeout rate was 20.4%, not 29% – and that’s where his mind-numbing Z-Contact comes in play. Opponents, when swinging, are making contact on just 72.9% of Price’s offerings in the strike zone, a number that leads the MLB by a wide margin. Teammate Steven Wright actually has the second lowest rate, all the way up at 77.2%, but he, you know, throws a knuckleball. Plus, its not as if Price’s figure isn’t an outlier in terms of recent baseball history too. Since 2010, there have only been six qualified pitchers to finish a season with a Z-Contact below 80%. None could manage a rate below 78% and one was R.A. Dickey, who, again, throws a tumbling ball of mystery – at least he did in 2012. Anyway, the point here is not so much to say that Price’s strikeout numbers are due for regression, the simple juxtaposition of his prior seven seasons could tell you that, but to suggest one clear philosophy: David Price doesn’t waste enough pitches.
Think about it. Where is a pitcher most likely to get hurt by an opposing player? Where is a pitch easiest to hit? Where does a pitcher not want a mistake to end up? In the strike zone. Sure, in theory it’s a good place to be. Price has always shown immaculate control throughout the course of his career and that’s been exemplified in microscopic BB/9 rates the past three years, but in 2016? This one season specifically, with a much noted, near 2 mph drop in fastball velocity? Maybe Price needs to be a little more wild. I’m not talking Francisco Liriano levels of erratic, yet, something needs to be different. Take for example Price’s best pitch: his change-up. The offering has a near 30% whiff rate through a month and a half and, understandably, it’s become Price’s most trusted finishing pitch. Opponents have swung at said change 64% of the time its been thrown this season. 64%! Yes, part of that is deception, but another part is just that its always right there on the hitting plane. Price’s change-up has been called a ball just 24.5% of the time he’s thrown it. To compare that to a few of the other top change-ups in the league, Stephen Strasburg‘s change is a ball 36% of the time and it still has a whiff rate of 26%. Hell, Marco Estrada, who throws his change nearly 30% of the time overall, has the pitch called a ball on 40% of occasions. It’s either a ball, a swing and miss, or terrible, terrible contact. That’s why opponents have mustered just a .163 slugging percentage against the offering. Strasburg’s? A mere .026 figure. Price’s .422 mark off his change isn’t awful, yet opposing hitters are too often given the opportunity to make decent contact on a pitch in the zone.
Again, David Price has been one of the unluckiest players in baseball this season, but, as your grandparents or any elderly sage person might tell you: You make your own luck. Will Price’s insanely high BABIP normalize? Its very likely. Its also a strong possibility that a pitcher that negates opponent contact as much as Price does won’t continue to have a problem stranding runners. Yet, if Price’s velocity has truly dipped for good, adjustments have to be made and I think his propensity to throw too many pitches in the zone is a fantastic place to start.