David Price was a pretty good pitcher in his first season with the Red Sox. Most MLB pitchers would have been very happy with a 114 ERA+ and a 17-9 won-lost record, especially if, like Price, they led baseball in innings pitched with 230 and placed seventh for strikeouts with 228. However, with his enormous contract, the expectations were for an ace, not merely pretty good, and he clearly fell short of being an ace. Price may have been the third-best starter on the Red Sox, certainly behind Cy Young award winner Rick Porcello and, arguably, behind knuckleballer Steven Wright as well.
The Red Sox signed Price as a free agent after the best season of his career in 2015. Pitching for two teams that year, Price placed second in Cy Young voting with a 1.076 WHIP, 2.45 ERA (for an American League-leading ERA- of 60), and 2.78 FIP. What’s more, his 2015 was part of an encouraging trend of year-by-year improvements in FIP and WHIP that suggested a genuinely improved pitcher:
On the other hand, 2015 could also be seen as an outlier year for Price. While he has consistently been a solid, above-average pitcher, his ERA- has more typically been in the 80-90 range than in the 60-70 that he put up in 2012 and 2015.
In terms of pitch movement and velocity, did anything change in 2016 that might account for his lackluster results? The chart below shows the break, speed, and horizontal as well as vertical movement on Price’s pitches, with the size of the dots proportional to their usage frequency, over the past five years. (I discount Price’s earlier years, since his pitching style has changed significantly since then, but he was also around a league-average pitcher in 2009 and 2011.)
Price’s pitches have actually been very consistent year by year. His fastball velocity has dropped somewhat as he has converted himself from a flamethrower who mainly tried to blow fastballs past hitters, to a pitcher who uses a full repertoire to fool them. The most obvious thing from this chart is that 2015 was again a moderate outlier year: His two-seam fastball (“FT”) and his cutter (“FC”) gained vertical movement (and a little bit of velocity) at the expense of horizontal movement; his curve (“CU”) did the reverse, showing more horizontal movement at the expense of vertical movement. However, these differences were not spectacular.
His 2015 season also looks like an outlier when looking at pitch value based on total bases per 100 pitches. (These are compared to the average value for each pitch in 2016.) Price’s most common pitch, the two-seam fastball, was very effective in 2015, as was his curve. Both were much less so in 2016. His cutter and changeups (“CH”) were both around average in 2015, and that didn’t change much in 2016. In 2016, his four-seam fastball (“FF”) was very effective on a per-pitch basis, but Price rarely throws this pitch (just 4.0% of pitches, based on my manual recategorization of his pitch use), so it doesn’t contribute to his overall value:
What about pitch location? Focusing on his two-seam fastball and his curve (since those pitches differed most in effectiveness between 2015 and 2016), we can see that there is some change, but not in a way that obviously explains the difference:
In 2015, Price’s two-seam and curve were both more likely to be near the center of the plate, while in 2016 they were more around the edges. It’s remotely possible that Price was trying to be too fine, but since the number of balls per 100 pitches was virtually identical between 2015 and 2016, it isn’t as if Price was actually missing the zone; it’s hard to say that his location was much worse overall in 2016.
All in all, the David Price that the Red Sox saw in 2016 was very much like the pitcher he was in 2014 and 2013. For three of the past five years, he has been a somewhat better than average pitcher who throws a lot of innings, which is valuable, though not worth $30 million. For two of the past five seasons, he has been an outstanding pitcher, and while there were some measurable differences in his pitches those years, it’s difficult to point to any single factor explaining the difference. Since there was nothing obviously wrong with him in 2016, it’s not unreasonable to hope for another ace-type season from him, but it’s certainly not a guarantee.