Before the start of the season, the Rays were criticized in a few places for even considering putting David Price back in the minor leagues because they were “being cheap.” This, despite the fact the Rays management staff was quite clear in stating reasons why Price could start the season in Durham. Jim Hickey was very specific in February when he said:
“He’s not the finished product in terms of what you’d like to see,” Hickey said. “You’d like to see him have a little more command of the changeup; his fastball obviously is there, his slider is also.
“The command of the fastball can improve. And the changeup can improve. These are just normal type things, though. We have guys who have pitched three or four years in the Major Leagues whose fastball command can improve and changeup can improve also.”
After-all, after a couple of starts at the end of the season, the Rays threw Price into a relief role and between the two roles, he threw 99% fastballs and sliders. The Rays did indeed send Price to the minors to start the season to work on the skills that Hickey outlined above, but did it work?
Price was called back up to majors on May 23rd. He left Durham with a 1-4 record and a 3.93 ERA in 34.1 highly-handled innings. Price was under strict pitch counts and a pitching plan. His 9.2 K/9 was good but the 4.7 BB/9 gave pause for concern, as did a 1.3 HR/9. After some struggles in April and early May, his last two AAA starts encompassed 9.2 innings and he struck out 14 while walking only two batters in those two starts. His first major league start was rather forgettable as Price failed to make it out of the 4th inning despite throwing 100 pitches and it has been a rollercoaster ride from start to start since. Price was most dominant in his second start against the Twins and more recently against the Marlins, but the other six starts were a mixed bag of problems. One glaring problem for Price in his starts have been his pitch counts. The table below shows Price’s pitch counts by inning for each of his eight starts:
Price is averaging 25 pitches per start in the first inning of his eight starts, which is nine pitches above the league average. In five of his eight starts, Price had thrown at least 25 pitches in the first inning with a high of 40 pitches back on June 23rd against the Phillies. Part of Price’s problems is controlling his pitches and his 7.1 BB/9 at the major league level show how he has struggled with his control. He has thrown 750 pitches in his eight starts – 460 for strikes and 290 for balls; a 1.6 strike to ball ratio. That is 20% below the league average of 1.95. In the three starts that Price has been good, his strike to ball ratio has been at least 2.3; when he has been awful it has been 1.4 or lower. This further highlights his problems with consistency this year.
Rays fans should be quite familiar with a Rays pitcher struggling with high pitch counts and control since these are the same symptoms Scott Kazmir struggled with before going on the disabled list. Kazmir was suffering through a loss of velocity and lack of confidence in a third pitch. Price’s velocity is not a problem as he continues to work in the mid 90’s but a lack of a third pitch has been a big problem. The table below shows Price’s pitch mix-up for each of his starts this year:
In his first seven starts this year, Price was working from the same fastball/slider mix that he heavily relied upon last year as a reliever. In fact, in six of his eight starts, at least 94% of Price’s pitches have been a fastball or slider. In order for a starting pitcher to survive with only two pitches, they need to have good command of both pitches – something Price does not have right now. Major league batters are not chasing his slider as the minor league guys did and are waiting for fastballs in the zone that they can drive. While his outing on July 4th was quite discouraging results wise, it was nice to see him actually use a changeup as he threw more in that outing than he did in his previous seven outings combined. His current pitch type mix is equal to that of former Rays pitcher Edwin Jackson. The big difference between the two is one is finding the strike zone with alarming regularity while the other struggles to find the zone from start to start.
It is very clear that the Rays were justified in starting Price in the minors to start the year – and it is equally clear that he is still not ready to be in the major leagues at this time as a starting pitcher. Price has had his head beaten in enough right now to be motivated to improve his secondary offerings to become a more polished pitcher. Maybe a return trip to AAA will work for David Price as a similar trip did for Ricky Nolasco or the time off did for Scott Kazmir. In order for the Rays to stay in contention in the American League East, they cannot continue to send out a starting pitcher who is still trying to smooth out issues with his offerings and expect to stay in the race.