David Price's Latest Dud Turns Slow Start with Red Sox into Real Concern

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterMay 8, 2016

May 7, 2016; Bronx, NY, USA;  Boston Red Sox starting pitcher David Price (24) reacts after loading the bases in the fourth inning against the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports
Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

The Boston Red Sox made a $217 million bet that David Price would be the ace they badly needed. And at first, it seemed like he would be.

Things have gone so far downhill since then, however, that it's hard not to bite your nails and wonder if there will come a time when things start going uphill again.

Seven starts into his first season with the Red Sox, Price is running a 6.75 ERA. The New York Yankees did their part to push that figure skyward when they got to the veteran left-hander for six runs last Sunday, and they tagged him for six more in an 8-2 thumping at Yankee Stadium on Saturday.

It was Didi Gregorius who got the big hit, sending a three-run double down the right field line that gave the Yankees a 4-1 lead in the fourth inning.

Now, it's not impossible to put a positive spin on Price's inflated ERA. For example, you can look at expected fielding independent pitching (xFIP) and see that it puts Price's "true" ERA at 2.95. That ranks him among the top 10 starters in baseball.

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The suggestion there is that a rogue wave of bad luck in the early going has blindsided Price. That's apparent on a micro level, as Mike Axisa of CBS Sports pointed out the pitch Gregorius hit was actually a well-located changeup.

It's also apparent on a macro level, as Price is dealing with a .373 batting average on balls in play (BABIP) and has stranded only 54.2 percent of the runners he's put on base. In time, both numbers should change for the better.

But to chalk Price's 6.75 ERA entirely up to bad luck is to ignore that he has some real problems he may not be able to fix.

One of these problems is an open secret: Price hasn't had his usual velocity. According to Brooks Baseball, he worked around 95 mph with his four-seamer and sinker and over 90 mph with his cutter in 2015. He hasn't been able to find zip like that on his heat so far in 2016:

It would be one thing if Price's velocity was at least trending upward, but it's heading in the opposite direction. Not exactly encouraging, that.

The popular retort in a discussion like this is that velocity isn't everything. But while that's true, even Price himself can admit it's something that counts for a lot.

"I feel like the more velocity that you have, the more mistakes you get away with," Price said after Saturday's game, per Ian Browne of MLB.com. "Right now, I'm not getting away with mistakes—or good pitches, for that matter. That's part of it. They hit some good pitches today."

Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

Price has a point. Even before the Yankees knocked him around (again), Baseball Savant had the slugging percentage against his fastballs at .455. That's the highest it's ever been.

Less velocity may not be the only dark cloud hanging over Price's arsenal of pitches. His stuff has often looked flat to the naked eye, and that may not be a mirage. He's seeing some slight variation in the horizontal and vertical movement of his pitches. In a related story, the average spin rate on his pitches going into Saturday's start was down from last season:

  • 2015: 2,147 rpm
  • 2016: 2,029 rpm

This is where it becomes hard to blame Price's struggles on bad luck. There has been some of that, but he's also been hit harder. His average exit velocity was more than 2 mph higher than his 2015 mark going into Saturday, and the Yankees probably made that worse. Such is life when a pitcher is dealing with lesser velocity and flatter stuff.

The question that arises is whether there's something physically wrong with Price, but there doesn't seem to be any evidence of that. His release point is fine, and the Red Sox don't see any red flags.

"That's not health-related," Red Sox manager John Farrell said in reference to Price's velocity, per Browne. "Right now we're examining everything. Physically, he checks out, as we check all of our pitchers after a start. So it's not a health-related issue."

If Price is indeed healthy, the hope that arises is that maybe the struggle that seems so real is actually, you know, just one of those things.

But that may be a fool's hope. The likely explanation is that Price is finally succumbing to age now that he's past his 30th birthday. Per the aging curves that Bill Petti presented at FanGraphs, Price is already well beyond the age when starting pitchers tend to start losing velocity. We don't yet know how spin rate is affected by age, but it's easy to imagine there's a similar correlation.

So rather than wait for Price to get his old stuff back, the best hope is that he'll find ways to make do with what he has. That's a matter of sequencing and location, and the bright side is that the latter is still one of Price's strengths. He may be struggling to get hitters out, but he's not having issues with walks (2.6 per nine innings) or throwing strikes (66.2 strike percentage).

Whether a new version of Price can be better than vintage Price is anyone's guess. That's a high bar to clear, as vintage Price used his power arsenal to win two ERA titles and a Cy Young in the last four seasons.

If that's the guy the Red Sox were hoping to get, it may be time for them to lower their expectations.

Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted/linked.

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