Trading for Proven Workhorse David Price

The thing we know is that David Price is going to be traded. That much is a virtual certainty, for all of the reasons you already understand. The things we don’t know are all of the details. We don’t know where he’s going to be traded to, and we don’t know what he’s going to bring back. We don’t know when the trade is going to happen, and we don’t know if there’ll even be a trade this offseason. Would the Rays be daring enough to move Price during a competitive regular season? Would they be daring enough to wait to move Price until the next winter? Who feels a greater sense of urgency — the team with Price, or the teams that would like to have him? Behind the scenes, there’s probably a lot of activity, but from the outside it feels like nothing has budged for a matter of weeks.

Oh, and there’s another thing we know. David Price has been outstanding. Truly outstanding, since he graduated into the majors. He’s posted four consecutive seasons of at least 180 innings and at least an average ERA, and the reality is that he’s mostly exceeded those marks with relative ease. Over the four seasons, he’s averaged 208 innings and a 78 ERA-. Price has been one of the game’s great workhorses, and that’s a big part of how the Rays are selling him. You get Price, and you can write his next season’s numbers in ink.

But over the rest of this post, I’m going to establish a point that has long been established. There’s no question that Price has been a workhorse, and an ultra-effective one at that. Young pitchers don’t get more proven. But what is it to trade for a workhorse? What does the track record mean for the short-term future? To what extent can you really count on a guy like Price to give you 200 quality innings?

As always, we turn to history. For four straight years, between the ages of 24-27, Price has thrown 180+ innings with at least an average ERA. He’s one of just 19 pitchers to do that over the past 30 years, at those ages. Between 1982-2011, there were 16 such pitchers. What we care about, then, is how did those pitchers do when they were 28 and 29? Because Price, of course, has two remaining years of team control until he’s eligible to be a free agent. Which means it’s two years until Price is paid like an ace, presuming he still is one.

For strike-related reasons, I have to exclude two starters from the pool of 16. So we’re left with 14 guys, and here’s a big table of names and statistical information. By the numbers, these can all be considered peers of David Price.

Barry Zito 24-27 902 81 96 15.6 19.8 28-29 418 93 109 3.8 7.1
Brad Radke 24-27 899 84 84 19.1 19.2 28-29 344 92 84 7.6 6.3
Brandon Webb 24-27 853 72 78 17.9 20.3 28-29 463 68 70 11.7 12.3
Carlos Zambrano 24-27 842 80 91 13.5 19.1 28-29 299 84 86 5.8 5.4
CC Sabathia 24-27 883 74 75 23.3 23.2 28-29 468 74 79 11.0 12.0
Dan Haren 24-27 879 81 84 18.7 19.0 28-29 464 82 81 9.7 10.5
Dave Stieb 24-27 1098 69 85 21.3 31.5 28-29 390 102 106 3.6 3.3
Jon Lester 24-27 813 75 78 20.0 22.5 28-29 419 102 91 7.4 5.3
Mark Mulder 24-27 825 84 92 12.9 17.7 28-29 104 176 145 -1.1 -2.2
Mike Hampton 24-27 891 79 91 14.4 19.5 28-29 382 114 105 3.6 1.3
Pedro Martinez 24-27 905 59 59 32.0 31.6 28-29 334 41 42 15.7 17.1
Roger Clemens 24-27 1027 66 63 32.8 31.7 28-29 518 60 61 17.4 16.6
Tim Hudson 24-27 916 72 84 19.3 24.4 28-29 381 80 90 6.4 8.6
Tim Lincecum 24-27 882 71 71 22.4 24.1 28-29 384 132 109 2.5 -0.5

Between 24-27, the group averaged 225 innings per season, with a 75 ERA- and an 81 FIP-. Price has averaged 208 innings per season, with a 78 ERA- and an 83 FIP-, so that all checks out. Price has been worth 17.4 WAR, and 19.9 RA9-WAR. All these guys have been different types of the same thing.

Between 28-29, the group averaged 192 innings per season, with a 93 ERA- and a 90 FIP-. On average, it remained a group of good starters, but they were worse and they pitched less, which is of course precisely what you’d expect on account of basic regression. Whenever you have guys performing around extremes, you expect them to be more average going forward, even without any decline in natural ability. Old principle, that one.

Out of those 14 starters:

  • nine started at least 60 games between 28-29
  • six threw at least 400 innings between 28-29
  • five were worth at least 8 WAR between 28-29
  • six were worth at least 8 RA9-WAR between 28-29

There are clear successes. Roger Clemens remained an incredible workhorse. Same with CC Sabathia, Dan Haren, and Brandon Webb. Pedro Martinez didn’t stay perfectly healthy, but he improved when he pitched, so he was amazing. But at the extreme other end, Mark Mulder turned into a mess. Nobody really knows what’s happened with Tim Lincecum. Dave Stieb had an odd couple years of regression, and so on and so forth.

I should tell you, the real picture is actually better than this. The two pitchers excluded because of the strike were Greg Maddux and Jack McDowell. They didn’t get to pitch full seasons in 1994-1995, but when they did pitch, they were healthy and very good. In those years, both were 28-29, and McDowell was good while Maddux both times led the league in ERA. Presumably, they should count as positive comps for Price, so go ahead and mentally factor that in however you want.

But the obvious point is clear: there’s no such thing as a performance guarantee. This is that point that’s long been established. Trade for Price and you don’t know you’re getting a sure 200 innings with a low ERA. He might get hurt, he might pitch worse, or he might do both. Price has better-than-average odds of being an ace workhorse the next two seasons, because of his track record. Those odds, however, are far from 100%. The Rays can’t sell him as a lock, and a team shouldn’t buy him as a lock. He’s a risk like literally everybody else.

And maybe more than that. The most recent year that Price didn’t exceed 200 innings was 2013. He lost two miles off of his average fastball and he missed more than a month with an arm injury. His strikeouts dropped by four percentage points. Of course he was still incredible. He came back from the injury just not throwing balls anymore, so he offset the strikeout drop with a corresponding drop in walks. His other pitches didn’t have velocity declines like his fastball, if they declined at all, so you wonder if it might’ve been deliberate, a sacrifice of power for location. But you can’t just assume that. According to PITCHf/x, in 2012, Price threw 264 pitches at least 97 miles per hour. In 2013, he threw zero. Price might no longer be physically capable of that high-90s heat.

Which doesn’t mean he can’t succeed. Which doesn’t mean he can’t be brilliant. Felix Hernandez has remained durable and brilliant with less and less heat. But Price has his warning signs, and the history of these pitchers is somewhat mixed. As a rule of thumb, if you’re acquiring an amazing player, you should expect him to not be so amazing. David Price is a relative safe bet, but he’s not an actual safe bet, in terms of remaining durable and outstanding.

Players are risky. Pitchers are riskier. Congratulations to us, we’ve learned nothing new. But it is easy to forget that there’s no such thing as getting a guaranteed staff ace. There is only such thing as getting a guy who’s been a staff ace before.

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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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