Keys for David Price to Return to Cy Young Form in Return to Rays

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Keys for David Price to Return to Cy Young Form in Return to Rays
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Tampa Bay Rays sure could use David Price

Per FanGraphs, Rays starters rank 21st in MLB in ERA and have compiled a 4.57 ERA over the last month, all while the 2012 AL Cy Young winner has been on the disabled list with a triceps injury.

I would say it's lucky for the Rays that Price will be back soon, but, the word "lucky" only applies if it's the 2012 version of Price we're talking about. The Rays are only getting that guy back if he returns and corrects some wrongs that plagued him earlier in the year, which is going to be no easy task.

If you missed it, Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times reported on Wednesday that Price had declared himself good to go after a rehab outing for Class-A Charlotte. He hopes to start for the Rays next week.

"Obviously it's not in my hands, but I put my best foot forward today," Price said. "It was very good to have the results I had today, to be able to throw the ball the way I threw it today was really good."

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
And many heads were hung.

Price last pitched on May 15, when he only made it through two-and-a-third against the Boston Red Sox at Tropicana Field before being pulled due to his injury. In nine starts this season, he owns a 5.24 ERA, a 1.44 WHIP and an .811 opponent OPS. Very un-Price-like numbers, to be sure.

The buzz now, however, is positive. Topkin provided the following assessment of Price's rehab outing:

Price walked just one, and threw 54 of his 72 pitches for strikes, including first-pitch strikes to 15 of the 19 batters he faced. He struck out four in the second inning, with a hitter reaching due to a wild pitch. His fastball reached as high as 95 miles per hour and he was encouraged with his curveball and slider.

It's all well and good that Price was throwing first-pitch strikes and plenty of strikes overall, but he was already doing that. According to Baseball-Reference.com, Price was throwing more first-pitch strikes in his first nine starts than he was in all of 2012, and his overall strike percentage is also up this year.

What really stands out is that last sentence, for it tells encouraging tales about Price's fastball and curveball. That's good, because these two things were giving him no shortage of trouble before he got hurt.

J. Meric/Getty Images

Per Baseball Info Solutions by way of FanGraphs, Price averaged 95.5 miles per hour with his hard stuff last year. This year, he was only averaging 93.4 miles per hour, a more than two-MPH drop.

Brooks Baseball has the average velocity of Price's hard stuff in 2012 at more like 96 miles per hour, with a drop to 94 miles per hour this year. Slightly different numbers, but the same two-MPH drop. 

And that's obviously no bueno. Slight velocity losses can be overcome, but there's nothing at all slight about a two-MPH drop. That's huge, and Price was certainly having a hard time overcoming it.

If Price can sit at 95 upon his return like he was able to do last year, he'll have a larger margin for error than he did earlier in the season. But velocity isn't everything. Price also needs to get his fastball command under wraps, as it was pretty brutal before he got hurt.

Brooks Baseball keeps zone profiles for each pitcher that show which parts inside and around the strike zone they tend to frequent. I can't re-post the graphs here, but I can point out the problem Price was having in a table easily enough.

The following are the percentages of four-seamers, sinker and cutters Price threw over the middle of the plate in 2013 as compared to 2012:

Year Middle Left Middle Middle Right
 2012  5.00  4.57  7.33
 2013  6.91  6.59  9.11

*From the catcher's perspective.

It may not seem like much, but any extra heaters out over the middle of the plate are too many extra heaters out over the plate. Price was living up in the zone with hard stuff way too often.

And he wasn't getting away with these pitches either. His Isolated Power (slugging percentage without singles) numbers against heaters in those zones can vouch.

Year Middle Left Middle Middle Right
 2012  .119  .171  .106
 2013  .118  .267  .292

For the record, the Isolated Power against Price this year is .177. Last year, it was .092. Too many hard ones over the middle of the plate help explain why.

So do flat curveballs, like this one Price threw to Paul Konerko.

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB's official YouTube account.

Ordinarily, judging a guy's curveball by a rogue hanger isn't fair. It's fair in this case, however, as that curveball is actually a fitting representative of the kind of hook Price was featuring before he got hurt.

By linear weights—FanGraphs goodies that measure the effectiveness of pitches—Price's curveball was by far his worst pitch. For every 100 he threw, he saved minus-3.76 runs above-average. Basically, his curveball was well below average.

And how. Among all the curveballs featured by all starting pitchers with at least 50 innings to their names this year, Price's curveball was among the least effective. That's quite the turnaround, as last year only three curveballs were more effective than Price's Uncle Charlie.

The curveball issues might have had something to do with Price throwing too many in the zone. Per the PITCHf/x data featured on FanGraphs, 41.3 percent of Price's curves found the strike zone this year. Only 34.1 percent found the strike zone last year, and you can see over at Brooks Baseball just how many whiffs Price got on those.

But Price was having more than just location issues with his hook. Using Brooks Baseball, here's a look at the movement of Price's hook in 2013 as compared to 2012.

Year Horizontal Movement (In) Vertical Movement (In)
 2012  -2.79  -4.95
 2013  -0.76  -2.45

*Negative for horizontal movement means it moves in on right-handed batters. Positive movement is in on left-handed batters.

So that flat curveball you saw Konerko tee off on? It wasn't one of a kind. In general, Price's curveball has been very flat this season. It's no wonder he's already given up three homers on it after giving up exactly zero on it in 2012.

For the record, it wasn't all bad for Price before he got hurt. His changeup was working OK, as he was holding hitters to a .211 average and had already saved 1.6 runs above average with it.

Aside from that, though...Well, not much else comes to mind. Price had some good outings here and there, but he really was off to that far off his 2012 form before his triceps acted up.

For now, it's all good. Price is back to pitching again and he's feeling ready to go. If he finds his 2012 form again, he's going to be a godsend for a Rays rotation that could very much use one.

But we'll see. If Price doesn't have his old velocity, his old fastball command or his old curveball, he's going to be more burden than godsend.

 

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter.

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