There still might be a way for Max Scherzer to start on Opening Day while wearing an Old English D, but we can probably agree it’s not the likeliest of outcomes. More likely, we’ll see Scherzer in St. Louis or New York or somewhere else and David Price will get the ball to open the 2015 season for the Tigers.
I’m comfortably among those who sing the praises of Anibal Sanchez, but my sense is that the Tigers view Price as their ace rather than the Maestro. Barring a shakeup, Price goes on Opening Day which makes sense because Price is famous and because Price is very good. But it’s worth talking a little bit about how good David Price is and how good he will be.
There’s no question that Price has been durable and excellent during his career. We’re not hear to argue about whether Price is good, we’re going to talk about Price being very good compared to elite because it’s January and nothing else is happening.
Price was good in a cup of coffee in 2008 and good-not-great in 23 starts in 2009. When 2010 came around, Price elevated his game and became 4-5 win pitcher for the next four seasons. From 2010-2013, Price sat between 3.9 and 4.8 fWAR with a little extra love from RA9-WAR. He was very good.
But in 2014, he performed significantly better. He maintained his 2013 walk rate (it had plummeted) and then he found more strikeouts than ever before. During his age 28 season, Price made the leap from 4 win pitcher (a good #2) to 6 win pitcher (an ace). I’m not going to focus on the semantics of the definition, but it was a sizable step up and we’re going to care a lot about whether Price is the 2010-2013 version or the 2014 version in 2015.
We’ve now seen 400+ innings of a sub 4% walk rate and his home run rate and BABIP weren’t lucky or strange in 2014. The story of Price in 2014 was a really low walk rate and a career best strikeout rate. A good way to look at things is with his K%-BB%, which beat his career best by nearly 6% last year. If you strikeout 27% and walk 4%, it’s a virtual lock that you’ve had a great year.
Price threw more changeups in 2014 than we’ve seen before, and overall batters swung a little more and made a little less contact. That’s always a good sign and a good indicator that the strikeout rate wasn’t happenstance. It might not be sustainable, but it wasn’t dumb luck.
A couple of things grabbed my attention, as well. First, Price has slowed down significantly over the last couple of years, adding three or four seconds between pitches on average in 2013 and 2014 relative to his previous times between pitches. There’s clearly something happening that’s leading Price to take more time and you imagine it will continue given the results. He’s working slower, perhaps because it helps him make better pitches but also perhaps because it gives him time to plan the right pitch. There’s no doubt his stuff is great, but if he’s thinking through his options more thoroughly, that’s likely helping him out.
We’ve also seen him get better against RHH more so than against lefties, especially in the strikeout department. You’re going to face more RHH in general, and especially if you’re a good lefty, so his ability to punch out 28% of the RHH he saw last year was huge.
There isn’t a magic explanation for his success, I don’t think. He’s throwing more strikes and he’s not walking batters, and that’s given him a chance to put away righties more effectively when he gets two strikes. The added changeups have helped, but it’s one of those things where you add a little command to an already impressive arsenal and it’s hard to beat.
You never want to bet on someone repeating their career year, but I actually do think the improvements from Price are sustainable because they’re the kind of changes you might expect to see from a pitcher as they age. He didn’t start throwing harder, he started throwing smarter pitches in better spots and it slashed the walks and beefed up the strikeouts against RHH. It’s a good combination, obviously.
If I’m being honest with you, this is a “no red flags” analysis. There’s nothing in Price’s process or results that makes you worry. Regression is always around the corner, but this isn’t a case of really low BABIP or funny results against certain teams. Heck, remember his numbers were this good with that weird start against the Yankees.
Price had a 6 win season and it was the kind of season that didn’t come with a lot of smoke and mirrors. I’m always more likely to buy a lot of “little things” than one big thing because a lot of little things don’t all fall apart at once. Price has established a nice baseline, and you like the odds that he’s made a bit of a jump forward.