David Price is on the Red Sox. We all know this by now, of course, but it’s fun to remind yourself of this fact every once in a while. David Price is on the Red Sox. It just rolls off the tongue, giving the Red Sox their first legitimate top-of-the-rotation arm in the post-Jon Lester era and arguably their best pitcher since Pedro. Whether or not you agree with the monetary and lengthy commitment they made to their new ace — and it was undoubtedly a massive commitment on both ends — Price clearly makes Boston a better team for the near-future. They were in dire need of a consistently great starting pitcher, and he brings that quality in spades.
The 30 year old has been in the league for seven full seasons now, and has built up enough of a reputation that it’s unnecessary to go through his career numbers. He’s a superstar, plain and simple. What’s particularly striking, however, is that he’s coming off what was very likely the best year of his career to date. Splitting the season between Detroit and Toronto, Price pitched to an ERA+ 161 over 220 innings. He paired that with a 2.75 FIP, a 2.89 DRA and a 69 cFIP, all marks of a truly elite pitcher. It’s not the first time he’s been incredible, but he took it to a new level in 2015. How he took that extra step is particularly fascinating to me.
When I think of the most aesthetically pleasing great pitchers in the league — the Kershaws, the Scherzers and the Sales — I think of their nasty stuff inducing swing and miss after swing and miss, mostly on pitches out of the zone. There’s just something superficially great about watching major-league hitters look like Little Leaguers at the plate. In 2015, Price wasn’t really that guy. Looking at Baseball Prospectus’ plate discipline leaderboards, he found himself in the middle of the pack in terms of whiffs on pitches outside of the strike zone. That doesn’t mean he didn’t do just as well as those other elites, though. He finished the year with the 13th best strikeout percentage in the league, and the 22nd best swinging strike rate. Instead of fooling batters on balls out of the strike zone, Price did the majority of his damage in it.
Let’s look at some numbers. Last season, 82 pitchers threw at least 2500 pitches. Only six of them hit the zone more than Price. Twenty of them, meanwhile, got more swings on those pitches. Most impressive of all, though, was the fact that just three pitchers allowed a lower contact rate on pitches in the zone. Those three pitchers? Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer and Chris Sale.
This wasn’t a complete deviation from Price’s former strategies on the mound, though it did have much better results than at any other point in his career. While his zone rate was right in line with his career norms, he induced more swings and less contact on those pitches than any other year in the majors. The catalyst to this change was a newfound ability to keep hitters off-balance. Although Price has always had a strong repertoire of four or five pitches, he mixed them up more evenly than ever before. You can see the exact breakdown by following this link. While that link just shows the overall mixture — and it paints a good picture of his usage over the season — playing around with the counts shows that he didn’t tip his hand in any specific situations. My favorite example of this is can be seen on full counts, where his four main pitches are almost split to an even 25 percent apiece.
It’s hard to overstate how important this is for a pitcher, and how difficult it is to really pull off. We’ve heard about pitchers with huge arsenals at their disposal before — and you all know who I’m thinking of right now — but all of those pitches need to be great to be able to pull it off. Luckily for Price, each of his options are plus with three of them inducing a double-digit whiff rate and his sinker inducing a ton of ground balls.
Intuitively, we can see why this is such a successful way to approach pitching. Mixing your pitches at an even and unpredictable rate, all while pounding the zone, results in confused hitters guessing on each pitch. This, in turn, results in either swings and misses or called strikes. The numbers back this theory up, as Price got ahead of batters more than just about any other pitcher in the game. He got ahead in the count more than all but three pitchers in the game. Only five pitchers got to more two-strike counts than Price in 2015, and only Scherzer had more plate appearances reach an 0-2 count. As we all know, pitchers win each of those match ups much more often than they lose them.
The fact that Price is a good pitcher is not news to anyone, but in 2015 he successfully shifted the way in which he did it. His opponents were constantly left guessing as to what pitch was coming their way, and Price was able to pound the zone without giving up much in way of hard contact — or any contact at all. This is a great sign as we look ahead to how he’ll age. Eventually, he’ll lose some juice on his fastball. Luckily, he has plenty of other weapons, and he’s already showing an ability to use them in a way that keep him among the elites in the game.