On the surface, David Price's 2011 season looked like a step back from his 2010 campaign. His win total, ERA, opponent average and line-drive percentage all were worse last year than the year before. But in baseball, there is always more to a stat line than meets the eye. Today, I will attempt to break down Price's season last year and what to expect from the lefty once this season starts.
To start, for your convenience, here is David Price's basic stat line for 2011.
12-13, 3.49 ERA, 224.1 IP, 218 K, 63 BB, 3.46 K/BB, 1.14 WHIP, 3.32 FIP, 4.7 WAR
The two statistics that make the big bucks for starting pitchers are wins and ERA. In both of those departments, Price suffered a decline in 2011 (19 wins and 2.72 ERA in '10). But was he a worse pitcher simply based on those two stats? Not at all. A deeper investigation into Price's season indicates that he was actually a better pitcher in 2011. Here's why.
For a power pitcher like Price, command is the most important component of success. There are plenty of human beings who can throw a baseball 97 mph. There are only a few who can throw that fast to a pinpoint location. While pitch selection (to be examined later) matters, a power pitcher with great command will often have great success regardless of what he throws.
David Price can attest to that. In nine starts last year in which he issued three or more walks, he posted a 1-3 record with a 5.01 ERA. In six of those starts, he posted a negative WPA (win probability added).
However, in his other 25 starts, Price went 11-10 with a 3.16 ERA. Now, while those numbers don't blow you away, it's a good illustration of how much difference command can make in a game. But numbers alone aren't convincing, are they?
Take a look at this chart, then this one. These are called heat maps (courtesy of Fangraphs), and they are essentially a radar display of where certain pitches were thrown. The more "red" a map is, the more a pitch was thrown there.
The first map was every fastball David Price threw to a righty in 2010. The second was the same map in 2011. As you can see, his fastball command improved significantly in terms of location. There were a lot fewer pitches on the middle or inner part of the plate, and a lot more towards the outer half.
As one would expect, Price's splits against righties also improved dramatically from '10 to '11. In 2010, righties hit .222 with a 3.77 FIP, with 21.6 percent strikeout rate and 9.6 percent walk rate.
In 2011, righties hit .247, but only a 3.32 FIP, 24.7 percent strikeouts, and 7.3 percent walks. In short, Price commanded his fastball much better against righties last year, and it paid off. Is this sustainable?
Probably, given the trends. Price had been a historically bad pitcher against righties up until last year, when he finally showed signs of becoming effective. He's always dominated lefties, as one would expect, but only recently have righties struggled against him. It all starts with fastball command, and Price has done a good job of improving that.
Another factor to consider with Price is pitch selection. As a notorious fastball pitcher, the gameplan against him is fairly simple—or so it seems.
In 2010, all four of Price's pitches had positive run values. His fastball, curveball, changeup, and slider were all fairly effective, but one pitch stood out. The changeup had a value of 1.88 runs per 100 pitches, over double the value of his fastball. So what happened?
Naturally, Price threw more changeups. Between 2010 and 2011, Price threw nearly twice as many changeups (5.5 percent to 10.8 percent). Additionally, his changeup value jumped to 2.61 runs per 100 pitches. Meanwhile, his curveball fell to a negative run value, and his fastball's effectiveness tapered off somewhat.
However, Price got smarter. He doubled up his sliders, cut his curveballs nearly in half, and as mentioned, doubled his changeups. By throwing his worst pitch less often, Price was able to become a more effective pitcher.
The mark of how confident a pitcher is in a particular pitch is how often he throws it when behind in the count. On 1-0 counts, Price threw 7 percent changeups in 2010. In 2011, that number jumped to 21 percent. As a result, Price's FIP at that point decreased by 0.40, a pretty significant drop.
The rise of Price's changeup completely transforms him as a pitcher. Rather than being a fastball-curveball pitcher, Price can mix in his slider and curveball as complements to the changeup, rather than the other way around. Working off his plus-plus fastball, Price's changeup could arguably become his best weapon.
If he is able to command his curveball better in 2012, Price could have a very scary arsenal of pitches that would rival the game's best.
There are several more factors to consider when looking at Price, but one subject to touch on is run support, especially because it does play a role in his record.
In 20 of Price's 34 starts, he got three or fewer runs of support. In those starts, he was 2-12. However, in 10 of those 20 starts, Price allowed three runs or fewer, games that a pitcher should be able to win most of the time. So realistically, the Rays' offense cost Price some wins. Of those games, eight were losses for Price. If half were no-decisions and half were wins, Price's record on the season would have been a much friendlier 16-5.
Conversely, when Price got four or more runs of support, he was 10-1. While this isn't surprising by any means, it does raise an interesting point.
Now that the Rays have supposedly shored up their offense, how much will Price benefit? How many games will he receive three or fewer runs of support? The answer is probably not as many.
So now, it's time to do some predicting. What kind of season will David Price have in 2012?
In the chart below are several stat lines. The first is Bill James' projection for Price. The second is Rotochamp's. The third is my personal prediction. There was little actual number-crunching in my projection. Rather, I took Price's numbers and increased or decreased them as I saw fit based on trends.
Obviously, my prediction isn't exactly earth-shattering, but it is a slightly more optimistic view of Price's season than the other two.
I believe his command will continue to be improved from 2010, but I think his K/BB ratio will regress a little bit from Price's career high last year. I don't see his innings changing much, and his record will almost certainly improve thanks to Tampa Bay's improved offense.
In general, I'd expect a strong year from David Price in 2012. While his "money stats" weren't great in 2011, those numbers should see a nice rebound this year to go along with his peripherals.
He is one of the game's top lefties, and the scary part is that his repertoire is becoming more mature and more potent. If he can harness his curveball, he has four potentially devastating pitches that could push him from being great to being elite.
Much of Price's success will depend on his command and pitch selection, as we talked about. Now, it is only a matter of time before we see whether the Rays' big lefty can have everything fall into place.