The Boston Red Sox went against their word and took a huge gamble on a lefty ace on the wrong side of thirty-years-old this offseason. At the start of the season, it looked like it may have been a bad bet, but a small tweak offered hope. After looking closer at the evidence however, Shane Liss-Riordan has some thoughts about that David Price leg kick.
Through his first seven starts, David Price wasn’t the ace the Red Sox had paid $217 million for. After his start against the Yankees on May 7, his ERA stood at 6.75, second worst in baseball. The following day, Dustin Pedroia apparently found a mechanical flaw in Price’s delivery related to the height of his leg-kick. In the seven starts since then, Price has an ERA of 2.68, which is much more in line with what the Red Sox were expecting.
A lot was said about Price’s fastball lacking its normal velocity. At the time, his four-seamer was averaging 93.2 mph, which would have represented a career low. Since the adjustment, his four-seam velocity is up to 94.3 mph compared to his career-average 95.3 mph. Price was recently quoted about the advantages of a higher velocity: “the more velocity that you have, the more mistakes you get away with.” It all seems to show that Price’s mechanical adjustment has salvaged his season.
However, a closer look reveals something interesting: Before the adjustment, Price had a 30% whiff rate on his four-seamer, a mark that would have ranked highest in his career by a large margin. Since he made the change, his four-seamer’s swinging-strike rate has gone down, and by a significant amount. It’s all the way down to 18.9%, easily the lowest of his career (his career-average is 23.9%, and in 2015 it was 24.6%). In fact, in the seven games since the adjustment, Price has a grand total of seven swinging strikes on the four-seamer, an average of only one per game. Throughout his near masterpiece against the Orioles on Tuesday – a game where he struck out eleven and walked none on his way to a tough-luck loss – Price did not record a single swinging strike on his four-seam fastball. Clearly, something else has changed besides the velocity increase. It’s possible that Price was simply unlucky: his BABIP of .373 and his LOB% of 54.2% demonstrate that his ERA should have been far lower than it was. Luck doesn’t appear to be the only thing that has changed, though.
Throughout his career, Price has thrown not just a four-seamer, but also a two-seam fastball and a cutter. Last year, he threw the four-seamer 29% of the time, the two-seamer 23% of the time, and the cutter 17% of the time. Throughout his first seven starts, the usage of each fastball was practically identical to that of last year. Since then, however, Price has completely shied away from the four-seamer, going to it only 10% of the time. The usage of his two-seamer and cutter has skyrocketed: up to 36% on the two-seamer, and 23% on the cutter. For a guy who just finished second in AL Cy Young voting while relying on his four-seamer nearly a third of the time, this is a shocking development. Nothing much has changed about these pitches: He hasn’t shown any velocity uptick on either of his other fastballs since the mechanical adjustment. The only change has been that he’s utilized them far more often.
Additionally, Price’s changeup has been incredible this year, even before the leg-kick adjustment. When hitters have swung at the changeup, they’ve whiffed at a 43.7% rate, by far a career best (his previous high was 32.5%). Since the adjustment, however, he’s taken it to another level. Before the adjustment, his ground-ball rate on the changeup was 46.7%, closely mirroring his career rate. Since the adjustment, his changeup’s groundball rate has jumped to 61.0%, leading to hitters slugging a measly .193 against it. Just to put that into context, the worst slugging percentage of any hitter since 2000 was Cesar Izturis in 2010 at .268, 75 points better than the slugging percentage of all hitters against Price’s changeup. On Tuesday, Price threw the changeup 40 times, for 38.1% of his total pitch count, the highest mark of his career. Orioles hitters swung and missed at the pitch 16 times and also hit 7 ground balls. Only one changeup became a fly ball, and not one became a line drive. They managed to get only one hit off the pitch, a ground ball single. That’s as close to unhittable as any pitch can be.
Given all the evidence, Price’s mechanical adjustment may not have been as much of a factor as it was made out to be. Price has had an increase in velocity of his four-seamer, but he also had an increase from April to May last year, and in 2014 as well. Many people who have been watching Price have noticed that his leg-kick doesn’t appear any higher than it was in April. On the other hand, Price’s change in approach is good news for Red Sox fans. All pitchers eventually lose some velocity: The ones that stay successful later into their careers are the ones who are able to adjust. Through his last seven starts, with an increase in two-seamers and cutters that move more than his four-seamer, as well as a devastating changeup, Price has shown that he is capable of adapting and evolving into a different sort of pitcher, but one who is still an ace.
Shane Liss-Riordan has made the case that a potential ace is not worth trading for, how David Price should pitch well in his 30s, and an analysis of struggling aces.
Follow Shane on Twitter @slissriordan.