Three of the best young pitchers in baseball all pitch in the American League East, and all three of them are in the midst of what some would call "breakout seasons." After seven shutout innings last night, the Rays' David Price now leads the AL with eight wins. Meanwhile, Phil Hughes of the Yankees is 7-1 and Clay Buchholz of the Red Sox is 7-3.
But not all of these guys are pitching as well as it appears.
At age 24, Price is having the type of season that everyone expected last year as a rookie after he starred for the Rays in relief during the 2008 postseason. Price was 10-7 with a 4.42 ERA in 2009 and he really isn't pitching all that much better this season as his 4.31 SIERA is little more than two runs higher than his 2.29 ERA.
SIERA is Skills-Interactive Earned Run Average, Baseball Prospectus' newest metric to judge the effectiveness of pitchers. SIERA estimates ERA through walk rate, strikeout rate and ground ball rate while the eliminating the effects of park, defense and luck.
Price's strikeout-walk ratio and walks per nine innings are both slightly better than last season, but not markedly improved, and his strikeouts per nine innings mark has dropped from 7.2 to 6.4. Where Price has made his gain is on ground-ball rate, as the number of batted balls hit on the ground against him has risen from 41.5 percent last season to 46.3 percent this year. Another good sign is that he is throwing 66 percent of his off-speed pitches for strikes in 2010. Price has taken a step forward, but his peripherals suggest that he's been quite a bit fortunate this year on balls in play, and his BABIP is an absurdly low .248. He can't keep that up. Expect his ERA to be closer to his SIERA the rest of the way.
Buchholz's SIERA is 4.25, indicating that he is also not pitching quite as well as his 2.73 ERA would indicate. The 25-year-old set the bar very high by pitching a no-hitter in his second major-league start in 2007. Still, there are negative indicators, particular that his strikeouts per nine innings has dropped from 8.5 in 2008 to 6.8 this season, and that he has gone to three-ball counts in 25 percent of the plate appearances against him this year. Buchholz has considerable talent and should have a good career. However, he won't become a true star until he regains his ability to overpower hitters while throwing more strikes.
Hughes has made manager Joe Girardi look like a genius for choosing him as the fifth starter in spring training after he worked primarily in relief last season. Hughes, just 23, has been outstanding as he is giving up just 0.6 home runs per nine innings (four in 63 2/3 innings) while throwing 72 percent of his fastballs and 67 percent of his first pitches for strikes. Joba Chamberlain has gotten all the New York-style hype among the Yankees' young pitchers in recent seasons. However, Hughes' 3.23 SIERA isn't that far out of line with his 2.54 ERA, an indication his performance is real and he is on his way to an outstanding season. Of the trio, he's the best bet to maintain his dominance this year.