Welcome to Over The Monster’s One Big Question series. For the next 40 (week)days, we will be trying to answer one important question for each player on the Red Sox 40-man roster. The goal is to find one interesting portion of each player’s game to watch for, whether that be in spring training or the early regular season. We’ll be going straight down the list on the team’s roster page, meaning we’ll be going in alphabetical order through each position group, starting with the pitchers. Today, we’re highlighting David Price.
The Question: Was all of the hard contact allowed by David Price in 2016 just a fluke?
David Price was signed to a seven-year, $217 million contract (which was made even more enticing with an opt-out) to be a legitimate ace for the Red Sox starting in 2016. By that measure, the lefty was a disappointment. He wasn’t nearly as bad as some hyperbolic sports radio types would have you believe, but he wasn’t quite the pitcher the team signed him to be for much of the season. It’s true that his peripherals were quite good. He posted a 3.60 FIP, which 14 percent better than league-average after adjusting for park. Price was even better by Baseball Prospectus’ DRA, posting a 2.90 mark that was 20 percent better than league-average after adjusting for park and other contextual factors.
Despite all that, he didn’t quite get the job done relative to expectations. He finished the year with a 3.99 ERA, and that was above 4.00 from April 11 through August 22. The simple explanation is that he suffered from a tremendous amount of bad luck, and that he should be right back to his old self in 2017. While that sounds good, it’s hard to ignore the home runs and general hard contact he allowed last season. Can we be so sure it’s just a fluke?
Before we dive too deep, let’s start with the simple numbers that show us how hard Price was hit in 2016. He allowed 1.2 home runs per nine innings, which was his highest rate since his rookie year. It’s worth noting, of course, that home runs were up around the league, and his rate was right in line with the league average. Still, Price is expected to be above-average. The southpaw also allowed a career-high 35 percent hard hit rate, the fifth-highest rate among qualified pitchers. That was compounded with a 22 percent line drive rate that was two percentage points off both his career average and the league average rate. The upward trend in line drives actually started in 2015, when he posted a 23 percent rate, and we’ll get back to that shortly.
First there were a couple of his plate discipline numbers that stood out. Specifically, Price saw some changes on pitches he threw in the strike zone. According to BP’s data, he saw a significant increase in swings on pitches that found the strike zone. This came despite him hitting the zone less. In fact, he was in the top 10 percent in swings on pitches in the zone, and it wasn’t great company. Right around Price were RA Dickey and Jake Odorizzi, neither of whom generate tons of confidence and both of whom possess significant home run issues. Intuitively, this makes sense. Hitters swinging at a lot of pitches in the zone suggests they aren’t being held off balance enough. The good news is, Price’s stuff continued to shine through as he was in the 10 percent of whiff rate on pitches in the zone as well. This is a tier made up of elite pitchers.
Elite stuff doesn’t entirely make up for allowing hard contact, though. You have to have some deception and command to succeed in all areas. If you remember correctly, Price actually graded out well in BP’s new command metrics, a fact that I still haven’t fully wrapped my head around. Their other new metrics -- which deal more with late break and deception -- help shed some light on Price’s problems. His post-tunnel break, which measures how much a pitch breaks after a hitter decides to swing, ranked in the bottom nine percent of the league last year. On top of that, he’s also in the middle of the pack in making every pitch look the same at the start of its path. These two rankings are helpful when we think about why Price had so many issues in the zone. They are also continuing another downward trend that started in 2015.
Looking at Price’s Brooks Baseball page, there are two offerings that are hurting him the most: The sinker and the cutter. Both of these pitches, if used effectively, should be curbing hard contact. In fact, they are specifically designed for late break and weak contact. Last year, however, both pitches allowed home runs on over ten percent of fly balls, line drives on over 23 percent of batted balls and whiffs on less than 20 percent of swings. Put another way, these pitches largely sucked.
As far as the cutter goes, Price just needs to retool it. As recently as 2015, it was an effective enough pitch with a solid whiff rate and limited home run damage against it. What he does need to do is get better control of the pitch, as he consistently let it run wild to his glove side. The sinker, on the other hand, could use a break. This is the second straight year in which it induced few ground balls and even fewer whiffs, and he used it far more in favor of his four seamer. His fastball is certainly prone to home runs as well, but at least it will induce more whiffs around the way.
I fully expect Price to come closer to meeting expectations in 2017 than he did in 2016. Last year was the perfect storm of bad luck and bad execution, resulting in horrid contact numbers. With that being said, some of these issues concern me. A lot of the issues that plagued him last year crept up in 2015, making this right on the verge of a full-blown trend. Hard contact — again, not quite as bad as last year, but rough none the less — may just be part of the game with Price from now on. His stuff and control is still elite, which gives him a ton of breathing room and should make him a great pitcher. There will still likely be bouts of home runs and line drives, though, so don’t be surprised if he’s knocked out by the fifth inning every once in awhile in 2017.