Are David Price’s Pitches the Problem?

When the Red Sox broke the bank this offseason, they thought they acquired an ace. However, the 30-year-old ace has hit several bumps in the road in his first season with Boston. Ian York uses PITCHf/x to see if there is anything in David Price’s pitches that may indicate why he’s struggling.

David Price hasn’t been terrible this year, but he certainly hasn’t been the ace the Red Sox expected to get for their 7-year, $217 million contract. His ERA of 4.74 as of the end of June puts him at just 73rd of 98 qualifying pitchers. His FIP (3.59) and xFIP (3.28) are better, putting him at 28th and 7th respectively, suggesting that he has had some bad luck. However, not all his of poor results can be blamed on bad luck. Can we see any particular issues with his pitches?

I compared Price in 2016 (ERA- of 105) to Price in 2015, when he truly was an ace (ERA- of 60), using PITCHf/x data manually re-categorized to identify Price’s five pitch types: four-seam fastball (“FF”), two-seam fastball or sinker (“FT”), cutter (“FC”), changeup (“CH”), and curve (“CU”).

Compared to last year, Price’s pitch usage is quite similar so far in 2016. He has thrown a few more sinkers to left-handed batters and few less sinkers to righties, making up the difference mainly with cutters, but the differences are small. Similarly, his pitch usage when he has been ahead or behind in the count was similar in 2015 and 2016:

There is one striking difference between 2015 and 2016 Price: His pitch velocity is down significantly this year for both his four-seam and two-seam fastballs.

Last year, Price started off fairly slowly, with his four-seam and two-seam fastballs averaging 93.4 and 93.5 mph respectively in April, but quickly sped up and hovered around 94.5 mph for his sinker, and around 93.5 to 94 mph for his four-seam, throughout the rest of the year. In 2016, he again started off slowly (92.5 and 92.4 mph for four-seam and two-seam respectively in April) and did regain a little speed, but even in June his fastballs, on average, barely topped 93 mph (92.7 and 93.1 mph) – roughly 1.5 mph slower than in last June.

The movement on Price’s pitches has also decreased from 2015 to 2016, although on average the differences are relatively small (a couple of inches). This chart shows the mean horizontal and vertical movement of each of Price’s pitches in 2016 (solid circles) and 2015 (open circles). The size of the circle is proportional to the number of pitches of that type he threw.

The four-seam fastball seems to have lost the most from 2015 to 2016, gaining a small amount of horizontal movement in exchange for several inches of vertical movement. His curve has lost horizontal movement and gained a small amount of vertical break.

More importantly, though, since batters don’t hit the average pitch, looking at the individual pitches shows that Price’s curve in particular has been widely variable in 2016:

While most of the curves have good break, there are a number of them to the right of the “0” horizontal inches bar – hanging curves that have almost no horizontal break. These may be the pitches that have turned his curveball from an above-average pitch in 2015, to one that is well below average in 2016.

While it’s always hard to tell if a pitcher has good location, since we rarely know what he had in mind when he threw a pitch, Price in 2016 does seem to have maintained his good location on most of his pitches. Just looking at his three most common pitches (two-seam, cutter, and change), and alternating 2016 with 2015 to compare locations:

The overall patterns are quite similar, and if anything Price’s two-seam in 2016 is doing a better job of avoiding the center of the plate and spotting the edges of the strikes zone.

Overall, the data show a pitcher who has lost a little fastball velocity, and a little curveball consistency. There is no sign of injury, and at 30 years old Price should not be showing a steep decline in velocity. Encouragingly, in his last start of June, Price’s fastball speeds were his highest of the season, at 94.4 and 94.3 mph for his four-seam and two-seam respectively – just about where he was this time last year. While he clearly has more than just velocity to recover, the data don’t show any glaring signs for alarm.   

Ian York uses the PITCHf/x to monitor the strike zone, highlights great performances, monitors league-wide trends and tracks the performances of some interesting young hitters.

Follow Ian on Twitter @iayork.

All data compiled from PITCHf/x.

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Ian is an immunologist and virologist who lives in Atlanta with his wife and two sons. Most of his time is spent driving his kids to baseball and soccer games, during which he indoctrinates his children on the glories of Pedro Martinez, the many virtues of the Montreal Expos, and other important information.