The talents of Tampa Bay Rays southpaw David Price are undeniable. The Vanderbilt product slings low-to-mid-90’s gas with seeming ease, overwhelming hitters with a deadly combination of speed and movement.
During what some might consider a “disappointing” 2009 campaign, Price has punched out nearly seven-and-a-half hitters per nine innings, with slightly less than four walks per nine frames. Home runs have been a legitimate issue for Tampa’s prized arm (1.23 HR/9, with an average 11.5 home run/fly ball rate), but his Fielding Independent ERA sits at 4.57. For a guy who recently turned 24, in his first year as a starter in the big leagues, in the DH league and the cut-throat A.L. East, a league-average FIP is nothing to be ashamed of.
That aforementioned heater has been Price’s bread-and-butter. He has tossed a fastball over 73 percent of the time, with an average velocity of 93.1 MPH. The pitch has been effective if not spectacular, with a value of +0.37 runs per 100 fastballs thrown. Price’s vaunted mid-80’s slider, on the other hand, might as well be on the side of a milk carton.
While his work from 2008 covers just 14 regular-season innings and came in relief (making this an apples-to-oranges comparison), Price tossed a slider slightly over 30% of the time in the ‘pen last year, with a run value of +0.94 per 100 pitches. In its 2009 Prospect Handbook, Baseball America dubbed Price’s slider a “plus-plus” pitch, “reminiscent of John Smoltz‘s with its depth and 87-88 MPH velocity.” That’s awfully high praise, considering how wicked Smoltz’s slider has been over the years (+2.19 runs/100 career).
In 2009? Price has chucked a hard breaking ball just slightly more than 18 percent of the time, with a grisly -2.13/100 pitch run value. Among starters throwing at least 100 innings, Price has the lowest slider run value in the business (Justin Verlander, Brian Bannister and Aaron Cook are listed as having worse values, but they essentially never throw the pitch).
The 6-6, 225 pound lefty’s struggles with his slider manifest in higher contacts rates than one might expect from a power-armed prospect. Against Price’s pitches thrown within the strike zone, opposing batters have put the bat on the ball 86.4 percent of the time (87.8% MLB average). On pitches thrown out of the zone, hitters have made contact 72.1 percent (61.8% MLB average).
Presumably, a decent portion of those outside offerings are breaking pitches that hitters are either fouling off or putting in play (and, given his run value, often loudly). The list of pitchers with the highest O-Contact percentages is flooded with soft-tossing, pitch-to-contact types like Jeremy Sowers, Livan Hernandez and Jamie Moyer. Not exactly the sort of company one would expect Price to be keeping.
David Price, in his current form, is still a pretty decent pitcher in the DH league. But in order for him to transform into the dominant force that scouts envisioned, he is going to have to rediscover his slider. Big league hitters are too talented for a starter to combat them with one, non-knuckling offering.