Have We Seen the Best of David Price?

David Price was awfully good in 2012. So good, that he earned himself some hardware which has been hotly debated in recent days. Fortunately, I’m not here to contribute to that conversation (argument). I’m simply here to wonder if we’ve yet to see the best from Price, and if not, what we might reasonably expect in his follow up to a career season.

Looking back over the last twelve American League Cy Young winners, it appears that it’s more the norm to underperform your Cy standard. This is far from scientific, it’s merely an observation, and a small sample observation at that:

Year Player WAR Next year WAR dWAR
2011 Justin Verlander 7 6.8 -0.2
2010 Felix Hernandez 6 5.2 -0.8
2009 Zack Greinke 9.3 5.1 -4.2
2008 Cliff Lee 7.2 6.6 -0.6
2007 CC Sabathia 7.1 7.6 0.5
2006 Johan Santana 7.3 4.6 -2.7
2005 Bartolo Colon 4.5 0.3 -4.2
2004 Johan Santana 7.7 7.6 -0.1
2003 Roy Halladay* 8 3.2 -4.8
2002 Barry Zito 4.4 4.3 -0.1
2001 Roger Clemens 5.8 4.7 -1.1
2000 Pedro Martinez* 10.1 5.9 -4.2

So the only pitcher on this list to improve the year following his Cy season in WAR was CC Sabathia where he went from 7.1 WAR to 7.6 between 2007 and 2008. The two asterisks on the list are Roy Halladay and Pedro Martinez as they both got hurt the year after their Cy season and didn’t really have the opportunity to repeat their performance. It’s worth noting that Pedro Martinez was probably pitching better in 2001 when he got hurt than he did in 2000, which is really saying something. There are a couple of other cases where the big decline can be explained away by A) freakishly amazing performance (Greinke) and freakishly bad voting (Colon). Other than that, most of these pitchers were still very good the year after, if not just a hair less dominant than their award winner.

So what’s this tell us about David Price? Frankly, not a whole lot – it’s like knowing that Marco Scutaro owns Zack Greinke in his career. But objectively, there is some logic here, even if there’s no practical methodology behind it — that a pitcher would win a Cy Young award after having an abnormally terrific season, and thus, outperform most of your competition. But repeating that abnormally terrific season is, well, not normal.

Was David Price freakishly good in 2012? At 5.1 WAR, it would be the third lowest on the list above, just a hair above Barry Zito and Bartolo Colon who were both nowhere near the best pitchers in the American League in their respective seasons (but I digress). The fact is, his season was good — but maybe not outlandish by what might be his own true talent level. What Price did well in 2012 strikes me as entirely repeatable.

Price turned just 27 in August, and over the course of the season his fastball velocity was fairly steady, if not just a little inconsistent looking at his velocity chart. But his average overall velocity topped 95 mph, which was almost a full mph more than 2011, but almost identical to the 2010 version. Barring injury, there’s not much reason to expect a lot of regression there. His 24.5% strikeout rate is the highest of his career, but just barely. His BABIP is right in line with his career average and although his strand rate is probably unsustainable at 81.1%, it’s not likely to come down precipitously with a solid defense behind him. The point here is 2012 was great for Price, but he didn’t suddenly become a superman version of himself — these things ought to be relatively sustainable.

But there are a few things that make me wonder if there’s a better Price even yet to come. First of all, I know you have to take the season as a whole, but it’s hard to ignore what Price did over his last 16 starts. From June 29 to the end of the season (roughly half his starts — he made 31), Price had a 2.22 ERA over 113.1 innings pitched, giving up just 85 hits and striking out 115. He held opposing batters to a .210/.259/300 line, posted a 26.4% strikeout rate, with just a 5.7% walk rate. Yowsa.

Secondly, he’s rather inexplicably reformed himself as a ground ball pitcher. In 2010 and 2011, his ground ball to fly ball ratio was 1.10 and 1.20, respectively. In 2012, it was 1.97. How is he achieving such a change? The simplest answer is he’s living in the lower part of the plate with his fastball as opposed to what we saw in 2011, and he’s getting terrific results. A good quick hitter for his fastball locations and ground ball rates for Price can be found here.

Having a great fastball, high strikeouts, good control, and the ability to induce ground balls is a pretty nice collection of tools in the old toolbox. In fact, over the last five years, there are only two starting pitchers in all of baseball to average a K% above 23%, a ground ball rate over 50% and possess an average fastball over 94 mph: Price and the 2010 version of Felix Hernandez (when he won the Cy Young, of course). If you ratchet it up to Price’s actual statistics from this season, Price stands alone.

The last thing about Price that strikes me as a little bit odd, but perhaps telling, is his arm angle in 2012 versus 2011. He’s gone from a little more over the top for a release point to a little more three quarters — and on his two seam fastball, it’s particularly pronounced. The difference between the two seasons is fairly dramatic.

I tried to get a couple examples of this from this year and last year, but they’re somewhat affected by the different camera angles. But you can see evidence of this varied release point. Here are a couple examples from late in 2012:

And here he is in 2011. The better example is probably the second image where he’s striking out Ellsbury. You can see that his arm slot is much more over the top than what we see above from 2012:

I’m not placing any kind of value judgment on his arm angle, all I’m saying is that the change is rather pronounced, and we can probably all agree that the results in 2012 were better than that of 2011.

In sum, David Price didn’t produce results that were otherworldly in context with his particular skill set. His velocity, his strikeout rate, his swinging strike rate, among other measures were well within what we would expect from him. Add to this a particularly dominant second half, an increasing ground ball rate, his age, and what appears to be a new arm slot which ostensibly lead to some of his great results. I don’t see any huge red flags that scream regression for Price headed into 2013, and I don’t think it’s optimistic to imagine a repeat of the results we saw in 2012. For fantasy baseball purposes, I’d pay a pretty hefty sum for him going forward with confidence.

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Michael was born in Massachusetts and grew up in the Seattle area but had nothing to do with the Heathcliff Slocumb trade although Boston fans are welcome to thank him. You can find him on twitter at @michaelcbarr.

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i love this stuff. It is a subtle change but so was the change to Granderson’s swing a few yrs ago…..