This past season got off to an interesting start for Price as the front office took some criticism for sending him down to AAA Durham to start the season. As it turns out, the move was not for monetary reasons, but for development reasons since Price still needed time to work on a 3rd pitch after throwing 99% fastballs and sliders in his time with the Rays in 2008. He struggled with his control and the long ball in AAA and his first start of the 2009 was rather forgettable as he could not get out of the 4th inning despite throwing 100 pitches. He bounced back from that to strike out 11 Twins in 5.2 innings to gain his first win of the 209 season but went through June and most of July with a lot of low-lights. There was a start against the Angels where he threw 105 pitches and couldn’t get out of the 5th inning or a good start at home against the Jays where he struck out seven and permitted only seven baserunners to gain a win. He finished the first half of the season at 3-3 with a 4.70 ERA with a strong 9.6 K/9, but a 6.3 BB/9, a 1.4 HR/9, and 1.64 baserunners per nine innings showed Price had a lot of room to improve. In fact, I even advocated for the Rays to demote Price to AAA in July; that is why I write about baseball rather than work in baseball.
Price’s second half got off to a very rough start in Toronto as the Jays beat him up for nine hits which included three home runs and six earned runs in just three innings. After that, Price would only give up more than three earned runs in any appearance just two more times the rest of the season. If we remove that one start in Tornoto, Price goes 7-3 in the second half with a 3.76 ERA, a 2.3 strikeout to walk ratio, a 6.0 K/9, and just 1.13 baserunners per nine innings. Even if we leave that awful start in Toronto in, Price’s post all-star break gains are noticeable.
The high strikeout rate in the first half was nice but it was negated with the incredibly high walk rate and the long ball problems. The second half saw a dramatic drop in Price’s strikeout rate but a much-improved strikeout to walk ratio and less home runs thanks to slightly less flyballs and a HR/FB rate that went from 14% in the first half to 10% in the second half. Despite the gains, this was not the same type of performance we saw from Price as a minor leaguer. The table below shows the difference in his 2009 efforts compared to his numbers in the 144 innings he pitched in the minors:
Those minor league numbers gave Price quite the case for his promotion, on the surface. Yet, the main reason Price was sent back down to AAA to start 2009 was to work on a third pitch. Throughout his career, he has been mainly a fastball a fastball and slider pitcher. In fact, Price admitted to throwing his four-seam fastball 80% of the time compared to just 20% for his two-seam fastball and a change-up he “rarely used.” When a pitcher relies on their fastball that much, it has to be damn good. According to fangraphs.com, 19 starting pitchers threw their fastball at least 70% of the time; Price fell in the middle of that pack with a 73% use of his fastballs. You would expect some guys with great two-seam fastballs such as Aaron Cook to have a heavy use, but the overall numbers for this group are not encouraging. In fact, just five of the nineteen pitchers with heavy fastball usage posted an ERA below 4.00 in 2009. The table below shows these 19 pitchers as well as their groundball to flyball ratio, their ERA, and their wFB score which represents how many runs above average their fastball was in 2009 (via fangraphs):
Price’s wFB score was the 6th best score on the list but his ERA was only 10th best. Aaron Laffey’s ERA was just slightly better despite a worse fastball because Laffey was also able to keep the ball on the ground at a much higher rate than Price was in 2009 which reduced the chances for the longball. His own teammate, Jeff Niemann, did better despite similar numbers because Niemann throws four complimentary pitches to his fastball including a curve and a slider he threw at least 10% of the time giving batters more to look for. Fangraphs also tell us how many runs above or below average all of Price’s offerings were in 2009:
- Fastball: +8.4
- Slider: -8.1
- Change-up: +1.3
Why is this important? Check out Price’s pitch percentages in the first and second half last season (via Joe Lefkowitz’s Pitch F/x tool):
Price changed his pitch selection in the second half by decreasing the use of his slider and increasing the use of his change-up as he got more comfortable using it. In fact, in the three starts in the second half where Price threw more change-ups than sliders, he was 2-1 with a 2.11 ERA and gave up zero homers in those 21.1 innings. A third pitch is essential for a major league pitcher to be effective unless two of their offerings are just plus-plus pitches and that is not something that can be used with Price at this time. His fastball is a very good pitch, but his slider is not to the point where it can be good enough as a starting pitcher to ignore the development of a third pitch. In 2008, Price was a key cog in the bullpen in the post-season throwing all fastballs and sliders and that combination has worked very well for relievers in the past but even Randy Johnson had to learn a third pitch in his career.
Price’s increased use of his change-up and improved control in the second half of the season gives hope for Price in 2010 as he becomes more of a complete pitcher rather than a thrower. Here is how the prognosticators think Price will do in 2010:
Once again, the fans are the most optimistic of the group as they project Price to have a better season than any Rays starter did in 2009. Everyone sees Price recovering his strikeout rate that slid in the second half but all of the other categories are very similar. If the Rays can get 12 wins and a 4.20 ERA from their 4th starter, they will take that all day long. I actually do not think that the fans are making an unreasonable ERA projection and have made the bold prediction in some of my fantasy magazine work that it will be Price who is the most valuable starter for the Rays in 2010.
Previous 2010 Projections:
Jeff Niemann: (1/6)
Carlos Pena (12/29)
Ben Zobrist (12/20)
B.J. Upton (12/3)
James Shields (11/29)