Come On Down: Preparing for the Possibility of a David Price Bounce-Back

Written by: Zach Hayes (@PineTarKeyboard)

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It’s probably not fair to say that David Price was a spare part in the Mookie Betts deal. Dumping his contract was half the justification for trading Mookie, though that’s not really a compliment either. 107.1 IP at a 4.28 ERA was certainly not the production expected of him just halfway through his 2015 mega-deal with Boston. Still, it wasn’t long ago Price was one of the game’s most feared pitchers. Is there any of that guy left? Or will we forget about him until he pops up in the LA bullpen come October?

The projection systems see a return to form for Price, and it’s not hard to see why. He had the worst batted ball luck of his career in 2019, running a .336 BABIP that was easily a career-worst, nearly 50 points above his career .290 mark. Along with everyone else who threw a pitch in 2019, his HR/FB hit a new career high (14.4%). On the individual pitch level, his sinker, changeup, and cutter all underperformed their xwOBA by more than 20 points. He still set a new personal best with 10.7 K/9.

It’s not hard to see why Price was one of FIP’s worst under-performers this past year. It’s been a rocky few years for the former ace, and there are plenty of reasons to be concerned that the computers are a little overly optimistic. His arm strength continued its fall from grace; the 91.9 MPH average velocity on his fastball was far and away the lowest of his career after sitting above 94 as recently as 2017. His stuff has simply been more hittable than it’s been at any point in his career. With a Hard Hit%, xwOBA on contact, and Barrel% that’s never been worse than the past two seasons, his stuff is simply more hittable than it’s ever been.

So what do we believe? I’m inclined to think there’s some hope. There was a time when Price was the kind of pitcher that would be dominant in just about any circumstance. For a pitcher as good as he was between 2010 and 2015, moving from Fenway Park to Dodger Stadium might not be a game changer. For 34-year-old David Price with 23rd percentile fastball velocity, it’s a breath of fresh air.

Price wasn’t getting killed at Fenway, to be fair. He was actually considerably better at home than on the road during his Red Sox tenure. Regardless, trading those Fenway starts for Chavez Ravine will at least somewhat mitigate his diminishing power.

The angle of his batted ball profile is about the same as it’s always been. He hasn’t strayed much further than 3 percentage points in either way of his career averages as far as GB/FB rates go. But as is natural with diminished velocity, hitters have found increasing success pulling the ball against Price since his 2015 peak:

David Price Pulled Batted Balls 2015-2019

Year FB Velo (MPH) Pull% BA/xBA wOBA/xwOBA
2015 94.7 33.1% .352/.344 .406/.379
2016 93.4 40.5% .395/.350 .458/.402
2017 94.3 33.3% .437/.372 .511/.433
2018 92.7 37.3% .406/.366 .478/.402
2019 91.9 37.3% .491/.405 .565/.447

source: baseball savant

That is truly an impressively consistent underperformance of peripherals. Something tells me Price won’t be sorry to see the last of the Green Monster.

As hitters are pulling the ball against him more and with greater gusto, the environment in which Price pitches carries more weight than ever. The infield dirt is the same in all 30 stadiums, so the real variable here is what happens on balls in the air. If Price can’t overpower hitters like he did a half-decade ago, being in an environment more advantageous to turning fly balls into outs becomes a difference maker. For those purposes, moving to the spacious confines of Dodger Stadium is a big check in the pro column.

At a basic batted ball level, balls hit in the air landed for hits about 4% more frequently at Fenway Park than they did in Dodger Stadium (.399 vs. .441 BA). The distribution of those extra air outs should be particularly beneficial to Price. Since moving to New England, his batting average allowed on pulled air balls in play has been nearly a whole hundred points higher on the road than at Fenway, and last year, hitters were particularly unforgiving when he made mistakes, with 14 of 17 pulled air balls (.824 BA) falling for hits against a .623 league average.

But even with some if health-related bounceback, it’s overwhelmingly unlikely that Price’s velocity will ever again be anything more than barely average. With his sinker and changeup-heavy repertoire, limiting damage on pitches the hitter is able to elevate is paramount to maintaining respectability. On the game level, a double off the monster at Fenway that becomes a F7 at Dodger Stadium is a big deal in terms of run prevention. Even if it ultimately results in just a few extra outs, it can be the difference between a stalwart rotation cog and an overpaid afterthought.

Run environment aside, there are other reasons that Price lines up well with the Dodgers pitching philosophy. That is to say, the Dodgers are just about the perfect team for a veteran pitcher struggling with injuries, consistency, and velocity loss. It might not have made a difference if he was headed any number of other teams, but in going from Boston to L.A., we’re talking about circumstances where expectations actually mean something. You know, I know, and everyone knows Price isn’t the same pitcher he was when he signed his deal in the winter of 2015. But his salary and Boston’s complete and utter lack of pitching depth even before we found out Chris Sale’s elbow is string cheese means that their success likely would have been contingent on the unlikely event of Price being the 32+ start 200 IP stalwart he was signed as. I’m no swami, but I suspect that would have turned out about as well as it has for most of his Red Sox tenure: with a lot of conflict and a few IL stints.

The Dodgers have no such urgency. A significant chunk of their recent success lies in the fact that they consistently have enough starting-caliber pitching on deck to avoid overworking their most valuable arms. Since Zack Greinke departed for Phoenix and $36 million per year after the 2015 season, only twice—Kenta Maeda in 2016 and Walker Buehler in 2019—has a Dodger pitcher made 30 starts in a season.

Part of this is because some of their best pitchers of the last half-decade, including Clayton Kershaw, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Alex Wood, and Rich Hill, have been, put kindly, durable as cardboard. The Dodgers have successfully worked around this through a willingness to spend on outside help and, more recently, excellent player development, seemingly spawning an elite prospect with an innings cap about twice a year. Andrew Friedman has long been one of the game’s most creative executives; since Greinke’s departure, he’s continued to buck conventional wisdom, trading stability for flexibility by forgoing the every-5th-day workhorse rotation model and deploying a platoon of high-upside but volatile on a health-and-hot-hand basis.

It’s a strategy that has its downsides—I’m sure they’d be happy to have five Greinkes or Buehlers in the rotation—but it’s allowed Friedman to allocate the Dodgers’ vast resources to other crucial areas. As a result, the Dodgers have gotten MLB’s fourth-best production out of their starting pitchers while avoiding the necessity of contracts like the one Boston gave Price.

Price is clearly no longer the workhorse the Red Sox would have needed him to be in 2020. It stands to reason that the best way to get the most out of him at this point in his career is to simply ask him to do less.

Luckily for him, the Dodgers are in an excellent position to do so. Again, their strategy is far from flawless; there’s a reason few other teams build their staff this way. Shuttling constantly between the pen and the rotation is exponentially more difficult than Ross Stripling and Kenta Maeda would have you believe. But their ability to do so has allowed the Dodgers to rest their starters more than just about any team in baseball. In 2019, Dodgers pitchers started on the traditional four day’s rest just 42 times. The only team with a higher proportion of starts on five-plus days’ rest was the Padres, and I have a sneaking suspicion that their impetus wasn’t a plethora of capable options.

While pitchers league-wide actually achieved marginally better results on four days’ rest than five, that has not been the case for Price. Like ballpark scenery, it didn’t much matter when peak Price pitched; he dominated regardless. Recently though, Price has consistently been a significantly better pitcher with a little extra time in between starts:

David Price By 4/5/6+ Days Rest

4 Days Rest

2016 25 3.69 0.717 8.8
2017 7 3.86 0.718 8.8
2018 10 4.26 0.678 8.7
2019 10 6.91 0.879 8.6

5 Days Rest

2016 8 4.96 0.731 9.4
2017 2 5.73 0.797 8.2
2018 11 3.83 0.75 10.1
2019 3 3.86 0.855 14.3

6+ Days Rest

2016 2 3.86 0.732 8.5
2017 2 2.08 0.531 8.3
2018 9 2.56 0.644 8.5
2019 8 2.36 0.628 11.8

source: baseball-reference

It might not matter much for the league as a whole, but it tracks logically that a pitcher with over 2000 Major League innings on their arm does better with more rest. Price will need to continue adjusting to navigating a lineup with diminished velocity. Still, he’ll be better with every extra ounce of velo he can get, and in 2019, his fastball came in a full tick faster when pitching on 5+ days rest. Even if he can’t blow it by hitters quite like he used to, it appears there’s still some juice left in the arm.

All this being the case, the Dodgers are better positioned than just about anybody to squeeze the rest of that juice out of him. The flexibility of Stripling, Julio Urias, Dustin May, and Tony Gonsolin should allow the Dodgers to continue putting a capable starter on the mound every day while keeping the pitchers that will matter in October fresh.

Price might not be terribly different as a pitcher—even if he didn’t quite meet the standards of the ever-acerbic New England media, his results hardly demand a radical transformation—but in moving from Boston to Los Angeles, he goes from a square peg being viciously hammered into a round hole to a far more suitable niche. Even on the game level, the Dodgers have been outstanding at not putting their pitchers in a position to fail, allowing starters to see the dreaded third time through the lineup at a rate rate sitting in the bottom half of the league. Simply put, they don’t hang their pitchers out to dry, assuredly a welcome change for a guy who can’t even escape beefing with his own team’s announcers.

These are all reasons to be optimistic about Price’s chances this season, but it still assumes that Price will in fact be roughly the same pitcher in 2020 as he was in 2019. When it comes to pitchers in their mid-thirties, there’s high potential for such an assumption to make an ass out of you and me. So lastly, I’ll identify the elements of Price’s game that he may be able to improve independently of where or who he pitches for.

Price announced recently that he’ll be pitching from the stretch full time this year, just a touch ironic, as he was the impetus for the rule change compelling pitchers to identify whether they’re pitching from the windup or the stretch. When pitchers make this type of move, it’s typically for the sake of increasing command by way of simplifying mechanics. We’ve known for a decade now, courtesy of Mike Fast—whose decision to ditch the Houston front office after 2018 now appears as one of the more prescient moves in recent baseball history—that velocity is essentially unchanged between the windup and the stretch. There’s little incentive to not give it a shot. After turning in BB/9s of 2.9, 2.6, and 2.7 over the past three years, all highest since his early years with Tampa, it’s not surprising that Price is turning to the likes of Stephen Strasburg and Yu Darvish for inspiration.

His swing-and-miss game is intact for the time being, but as Price’s velocity continues to decline, he simply won’t be the kind of pitcher who can afford to be walking multiple hitters every time he takes the bump. He’s being proactive in finding ways to skirt father time, which is always a promising sign. Still, not every pitcher can be Strasburg or Darvish, especially throwing 91 at age 34. Nothing is close to guaranteed in a game with such thin margins.

So what are the chances that Price sees the necessary improvement to ward off father time for at least this season? Let’s take a look at the basic before/after walk numbers for some pitchers who, according to some highly scientific googling, made the change in recent years:

Windup-to-Stretch Transition Year-Over-Year

Name Years Δ BB% Δ Strike% Δ SwStr% CMD+
Stephen Strasburg 2016-2017 -0.7% -0.8% 2.0% 109
Alex Wood 2017-2018 0.1% -1.4% -1.1% 118
Brad Peacock 2017-2018 -3.0% -0.5% 1.7% 101
Danny Duffy 2015-2016 -2.2% 2.8% 4.5% 99
Carlos Carrasco 2013-2014 -2.8% -2.2% 4.4% 100
Jason Hammel 2016-2017 -1.7% 0.2% -0.7% n/a
Jake Thompson 2016-2017 -1.3% 1.7% 1.0% n/a
Tyler Glasnow 2017-2018 -3.1% -1.8% 3.5% 90
Marco Gonzales 2017-2018 -1.3% -4.2% 0.2% 115

source: fangraphs; eno sarris

Okay! That’s promising! It should be noted that measuring control and command is still a very rough science, as Eno Sarris explained excellently in introducing his standardized Command+ stat, included here because it’s fun. There’s a whole lot of noise and other factors at play here, and some of these numbers regressed in following years. It doesn’t mean that they were actually any good at pitching, either. There’s a reason it’s been a couple years since we heard from Jason Hammel and Jake Thompson.

Still, I’m inclined to believe it’s at least somewhat meaningful that we see a decrease in walk rate across the entire board, along with at least average command from everyone who isn’t 6’8”. Counterintuitively, the decreases in overall strike rate we see aren’t necessarily a bad thing. The combo of a decreased BB% and Strike% paired with an uptick in Swinging Strike% tells us that the pitcher, assuming their “stuff” was more or less similar in both years, is getting hitters to swing more at bad pitches, without those pitches being non-competitive to the point of giving up more walks. With more time, this is something probably worth digging into with Baseball Savant attack zone search voodoo. But gauging intent is the truly impossible consideration of trying to quantify control, so for these rough purposes, I find it reasonable to assume that something good is happening to make the pitcher throws the ball where he’s supposed to more often.

Does this really mean anything for David Price? Who knows! With a sample size of 9, it would be entirely unsurprising if case number 10 bucked the trend. Price’s 2019 baselines (7.0% BB, 71.7% Str, 11.2% SwStr) put him in the top third of every pitcher who’s tried this before; it could mean that Price has still got a few seasons left of being a viable playoff arm, it could mean that his room for improvement is ultimately capped at this point in his career. Better command of the edges might let hitters barrel up his changeup a little less—typically his bread and butter, it’s been a below-average pitch the last couple years—but it might also be true that without top-notch velocity, there’s simply a limit to how much more effective he can be with one of the game’s most fastball-heavy arsenals.

Like I said, you never really know with pitchers in their thirties. Some remain effective, some fall off the face of the earth, some drink from the Fountain of Youth the Astros keep in the video room, some are Jamie Moyer. Price could go in any of those directions. But for the first time, he’s in the National League. He’s in one of the game’s best pitchers’ parks, in a division with two more of its best pitchers’ parks (it is, unfortunately, sometimes pretty easy to forget that there’s baseball in Denver and Arizona). He’s on a team that might actually put him a role he’s well-suited for. He knows some things aren’t working, and is making a change that at least on the surface seems to have had positive effects in the past. For the first time since he came back to the AL East in 2015, it looks like a lot of things have the potential to go right for David Price.

Follow new P365 staff writer Zach Hayes on Twitter! @PineTarKeyboard

Follow us on Twitter! @Prospects365

Featured image courtesy of photographer Jon SooHoo and the Los Angeles Dodgers


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