David Price, Cliff Lee, and the Others

David Price had one of the best starts of his career on Tuesday. With any start, you always have to consider the opponent, since it’s the opponent who’s responsible for doing anything with the pitches that get thrown, but at least by the numbers, Price was absolutely outstanding in Seattle, turning in a walk-free complete game with a dozen strikeouts. He was sufficiently dominant that he was allowed to handle the ninth inning of a one-run game, and he closed the deal with a 96 mile-per-hour swinging strikeout. Not that it was the swinging strikeouts for which people will remember the effort.

Closing the bottom of the first, Price froze Corey Hart with an inside running fastball. That was the first of eight called strikeouts Price would record, giving him twice as many called strikeouts as whiffs. It was tied for the highest called-strikeout start of the 2014 season, and while most called third strikes are the result of a hitter being caught off guard, in the end Price’s called strikeouts were pretty similar.

From Baseball Savant, here are Price’s called third strikes, against both lefties and righties:


Eight of ’em, all on fastballs, all either around the inside edge or the outside edge. So Price was succeeding with front-door fastballs and back-door fastballs, and what’s important isn’t that some of them might’ve been out of the zone — Price was commanding those pitches, allowing him to get the calls, and this isn’t anything new for him. Less attention gets paid to called strikeouts than swinging strikeouts, but as far as the former are concerned, Price has proven himself to be among baseball’s elite.

Last July, David Price came off the disabled list after having been sidelined with an arm injury. The David Price after the injury is very good, just like the David Price before the injury, but this Price is newly efficient. As a part of that, here’s the MLB leaderboard for called strikeouts since Price returned on July 2, 2013:

Yeah, it’s a counting stat, which generally isn’t preferred. Yeah, it’s selective for a David Price endpoint, which might make him look a little better. But the point isn’t just that Price is at No. 1 — the point is that Price and Lee are separated from the rest of the pack by more than 20 called strike threes. There might be more deceptive pitchers in baseball, but no one else is on their level when it comes to getting third strikes unchallenged.

And that isn’t where the Price and Lee comparison ends. When Price returned from the DL, he started pitching in the Cliff Lee style, and he’s held that much up. Since his return, Price has made 27 regular-season starts. Here’s a table comparing Price over that span to Lee over his own most recent 27 starts.

Pitcher FIP- PA/start K% BB% F-Strike% Zone% Contact% Swing% Strike%
Lee 77 28 26% 3% 68% 56% 81% 48% 70%
Price 74 28 23% 3% 70% 54% 82% 48% 70%

By expected runs, they’ve been the same. By batters per start, they’ve been the same. Lee has an edge in strikeout rate, but he’s also pitched in the National League in a considerably weaker division, and Price has a slight edge in walk rate, of less than one percentage point. Both pitchers have been very aggressive with first-pitch strikes, and they’ve been aggressive in the zone in general, even though they possess the command to nibble. Price and Lee have managed those above-average strikeout rates with worse-than-average contact rates, and they get the same number of swings. They’ve each thrown seven of ten pitches for strikes, overall, which is quite a ways above the league average.

Cliff Lee might not be the best pitcher in baseball, but he’s the perfect blend of success and efficiency, and he’s apparently serving as David Price’s role model. Even in terms of pitch mix, Price is like Lee with a few extra ticks, which gives him a greater margin of error since he presumably has slightly inferior command. By far the greatest difference between the two pitchers is that Lee has taken six fewer seconds between each pitch. Lee has been one of baseball’s fastest workers; Price has been one of baseball’s slowest. But while Lee’s pace makes him that much more watchable, in terms of the numbers that really matter, he and Price are basically twins.

So at this point, it’s probably not worth worrying about Price — the arm injury seems to be behind him, and he’s made himself more efficient, which could help preserve his health. Any pitcher could get hurt at any moment, Price included, but now he’s got zero other red flags aside from his chosen position, and once Price’s ERA matches up with the rest of his numbers everyone else should realize what the Rays have at the front of their rotation. This trade deadline, one Cliff Lee might become available. This offseason, the same could be said of another.

Quickly, going back to those called strikeouts, here’s Price against righties since July 2:


Front-door fastballs and a good number of back-door cutters. Here’s Price against lefties:


Pretty much all back-door fastballs. Against righties with two strikes, Price has shifted more to pitching away since coming off the DL, but he hasn’t changed much of his approach against lefties. Truth be told, he was already good at all this, but he’s taken it up a level to become the dominant command pitcher he is today. I don’t know if this is part of a conscious response to getting hurt, and if so I don’t know if this is going to work in the long run, but you can see the sense in it, and you can certainly see the success in it.

Cliff Lee with velocity. Such a thing can exist. It’s about as pleasant to face as you’d expect. One might wish that Price would work a little faster, but a slow pace feels faster when you don’t have to throw many pitches.

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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