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August 29, 2014

Raising Aces

Mis-Priced

by Doug Thorburn

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In just the past seven days, David Price has experienced the best and worst of times. On August 21st he was nearly perfect, allowing just one hit and an unearned run against his former Tampa Bay teammates. He struck out nine batters without allowing a walk, tying a career high with a Game Score of 87 yet taking the hard-luck defeat when the Tigers failed to cross the plate versus Alex Cobb and the Rays relievers. Six days later, on August 27th, he surrendered 12 hits and a walk against the Yankees while recording just six outs. He left with the bases loaded in the third inning after nine consecutive batters reached via hit, and when the damage was done he had surrendered eight earnies with a career-low Game Score of two.

It is somewhat sobering that a pitcher of Price's ability can have such a bad day, but for it to come on the heels of such a dominant performance was downright shocking. In a sense, one could say the southpaw was a victim of the vagaries of balls in play, as he allowed no home runs and just the lone walk, but he was in trouble even before the wheels fell off the BUS in the third frame. Wednesday's game was another example of the adage “timing is everything.”

Let's go to the game tape:

First inning

There's a dose of dominance in Price's early work, with a trio of strikeouts (including two of the called variety) mixed in with a hit, a walk, and no runs scored. Behind the curtain, however, were the underpinnings of his off day.

He started behind 2-0 on Jacoby Ellsbury, missing targets low and to the glove side before hitting Alex Avila's target on the number 9 of the strike zone keypad. Price tried to go there again with another sinker (his fourth of the at bat), but elevated the pitch and caught too much plate, allowing Ellsbury to knock a liner to right field for a single.

The strikeout of Derek Jeter required nine pitches, with almost everything elevated mid-zone or higher despite lower targets. Avila continued to try to coax pitches on the low-outside corner, but Price was struggling to find his ideal release point, and Ellsbury stole second base during the at-bat to put a runner in scoring position. The lefty finally painted a target on the ninth pitch, hitting the inner edge for the punchout.

Clearly rattled, Price could not find the zone against Martin Prado, resulting in a four-pitch walk as his pitches came nowhere close to their destinations. It was a stark difference from his previous performance, in which Price did not have a single three-ball count in the contest.

Price continued to miss targets with high offerings against Mark Teixeira, though two of his first three pitches found the strike zone to move ahead in the count. The lefty was rewarded when he did find the lower shelf, earning the strike-three call on a cutter that was on the border and provoked a bewildered look from Teixeira.




The Tigers' starter rediscovered his release point against Carlos Beltran, relying mostly on the breaking ball to skim the underside of the zone for the first four pitches. Price then changed the hitter's eye level for the next three offerings, finishing Beltran with a fastball located up and away that generated the whiff to end the threat. It would be Price's last strikeout of the game, and the pitch count after the first five batters already stood at 28 tosses.

Second Inning

Brian McCann led off for the Yankees and Price got right back to his target-missing ways. The Tigers instituted a defensive shift once the count evened at 1-1, moving Nick Castellanos from third base into short right field; McCann responded by hitting the ball in his direction, but it was hard enough to sneak through for a leadoff single.

Price was off against Chase Headley, missing targets on five of the six pitches before Headley went the other way for a single. The final pitch was a fastball that had 96 mph juice but was left in a very hittable location.

With no outs and two on, the lefty then started behind 2-0 on Brett Gardner. Avila continued to set up low and away versus the left-handed batter, but Price was over-rotating low and wide of the zone. The next three pitches were left belt-high, and though he worked the inner and outer edges to even the count, his 2-2 offering was a changeup floated right down Broadway. Gardner did Price a favor, rolling over the off-speed pitch (after four consecutive heaters) to get a force out and set up first-and-third.

Price had not had a short plate appearance all night, but Francisco Cervelli did him a favor with a first-pitch swing on a well-located fastball that resulted in a 4-6-3 double play to get Price out of a jam for the second consecutive inning.

Third inning

Cue the ominous music.

Ellsbury ripped the first pitch he saw to left field for an easy single. The pitch was intended to hit the number 7, down and in to the left-handed batter, but the 93 mph fastball ended up on the 4 and Ellsbury went with the pitch the other way.




Ellsbury then took off on first movement, stealing second base even though Price made the pickoff attempt with a throw to first. The second throw was too late and too wide to nab the speedy Ellsbury.

Price turned his focus to Jeter at the plate, but the southpaw couldn't keep the ball down. The fourth pitch of the at-bat was a changeup targeted low-away that ended up catching too much white of the plate, and Jeter responded with an opposite-field double down the right-field line, plating Ellsbury. It was the 20th hit off Price in Jeter's storied career, the most safeties of any player.




Price continued his target-missing ways against Prado, elevating all his offerings and missing to the arm side of Avila's setups. The timing issues were a continued trend for Price, with a late arm against right-handed batters yet over-rotation against lefty bats. He over-corrected the issue on his fifth pitch to Prado, missing the low-outside target with a changeup located middle-in, which played right into Prado's strength of turning on inside pitches and resulted in a hard liner pulled to left.




Price started behind again versus Teixeira, marking the eighth time in the first 13 batters that Price failed to get a first-pitch strike. Avila set up low and outside on all three pitches, and though only one pitch actually hit that target, Teixeira was looking for it and drove the pitch off the right-field wall for a double.




Avila went right back to the well versus Beltran, setting up behind the number 7 of the keypad for the fourth consecutive pitch. Price missed up but Beltran was looking for a pitch away, nailing the first offering he saw for another opposite-field drive that bounced off the track and then the wall for a very long single that plated Prado and gave the Yanks a 3-0 lead.




The battery was undeterred, continuing to set up low-away from the left-handed McCann. Price elevated the first pitch, then over-rotated the second offering to even the count. Avila set up low-away once again (that's seven in a row for those keeping track), but Price over-corrected and left the pitch up where McCann could extend his arms. The pitch wasn't hit too hard but found empty pasture in shallow center for another hit.




Just about all the hits had been the result of squared-up pitches until this point, but the next stream of batters continued the merry-go-round of baserunners despite soft contact. Avila was setting up low-away all day long, including four consecutive targets to Headley, but Price's inability to find the catcher's mitt may have kept opposing batters from locking into a single location. Headley pulled a grounder through the 5-6 hole to load the bases, and then Gardner followed with a chopper to the left side that he beat out for an infield single and a 5-0 New York advantage. Cervelli then punched another base hit through the hole on the left side of the infield, putting the final nail in the coffin of Price's day.




***

Despite the ugly box score, Price was not completely off-kilter on Wednesday. He was off just enough to get hit, which is the downside for a pitcher who typically has pinpoint command; when he misses a target he tends to miss within the strike zone, leaving hittable pitches over the plate. The glaring tendency for Avila to set up low-away against every batter was palpable, but such has been Price's approach throughout this season. Consider his zone charts:

Staying away from hitters is Price's M.O., and it is naturally tougher for him to hit the lower shelf to the arm side. His inability to execute that pattern fueled his blow-up on Wednesday, leaving Price in counts that let batters pounce on fastballs in hittable locations. The struggles all boiled down to a slight hiccup in timing that kept Price from finding his ideal release point, with his timing of trunk rotation compromised by about 0.05 seconds in either direction. For a pitcher who has made his mark with repetition and pinpoint command, such consistent inconsistency was enough to sap his skills for a single day.

Doug Thorburn is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Doug's other articles. You can contact Doug by clicking here

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