Today’s premium prospects receive more scrutiny than ever. Short of parting the Red Sea and ending world hunger (I’m looking at you, Strasburg), hot-shot young players may receive an, “is that it?” reaction from fans when they merely hold their own in the early stages of their respective big league careers.
Take Tampa’s David Price. The 1st overall pick in the 2007 draft abused minor league hitters and received national acclaim by flinging upper-90’s heat and sinister upper-80’s sliders out of the ‘pen during the 2008 playoffs. Entering 2009, Price adorned magazine covers and battled Matt Wieters for the titles of Best Prospect Ever and Time Man of the Year.
While Price didn’t dominate from the get-go as a starter, he more than held his own for a 23-year-old in the A.L. East. In 128.1 IP, he posted rates of 7.15 K/9, 3.79 BB/9 and a 4.49 xFIP. In 2010, Price has a 1.91 ERA in 42.1 frames. While he hasn’t suddenly morphed into Sandy Koufax circa 1963, Price has shown improvement in a few key areas.
In ’09, Price didn’t get batters to chase or swing through a pitch all that often. His outside swing percentage was 22.9 (25-27% MLB average), and his swinging strike percentage was a mild 7.5 (8-8.5% MLB average). This year, Price is getting outside swings 30 percent of the time, while getting a swinging strike 8.4 percent.
During his first year in the rotation, the 6-6 southpaw relied upon two main pitches: a 93 MPH four-seam fastball and an 83-84 MPH slider. The second time around, Price’s repertoire appears more expansive. Rather than tossing a four-seamer 71 percent of the time and mixing in sliders about 20 percent, Price has thrown a two-seamer about 24 percent and has gone to a 76-77 MPH curveball (thrown about 18 percent) as his breaking pitch of choice. His percentage of four-seam fastballs is in the low forties, and his slider percentage is less than half of what it was last season.
With the two-seamer (thrown about 90 MPH, with about 2 inches more tailing action in on lefties than the average two-seamer), Price’s ground ball rate has ticked up a bit, from 41.5% to 43.4%. The curve, while not getting many whiffs (6.1%, compared to the 10.5% MLB average), is getting plenty of strikes: 70.2%, way above the 58% big league average.
Whether the introduction of another breaking pitch has played a part or not, Price’s slider has been harder to hit this year. In ’09, the slide-piece was whiffed at just 5.9% (13% MLB average). In 2010, that whiff rate has climbed to a more palatable 11.1%. Perhaps the presence of two breaking balls has hitters less certain about what Price is going to throw. Along the same lines, his four-seamer, whiffed at 8.2 percent in 2009, has an elite 10 percent whiff rate in 2010 (6 percent MLB average).
The 24 year-old won’t keep that shiny ERA, as his BABIP will rise from .231, he’ll strand fewer than 81.6 percent of base runners and he’ll surrender more than a 4.3 HR/FB%. But Price has whiffed 7.02 per nine innings, walked 2.98 and has a solid 4.02 xFIP.
This is just a theory, but David Price with four pitches would certainly appear to be harder to hit than David Price with just two offerings. Now, batters have to anticipate four-seam, two-seam, curve or slider, as opposed to mainly just four-seam or slider. Price might not yet be a top-of-the-line starter, but he’s getting there.