David Price has spent years preparing for it, and the Red Sox likewise were prepared for it to happen sometime over the course of his seven-year, $217 million deal.
Still, it would have been hard to imagine that less than two months into his new life with his new club, Price would have moved away from his fastball as his primary weapon.
Disclaimer: Price has found something that’s working for him. The lefthander’s adjustment in his mechanics to put his hands in a higher position as he prepares to release the ball has yielded back-to-back quality starts — a first in his time with the Red Sox. First was a 12-strikeout, one-run effort in 6⅔ innings last week against the Astros, then a 7⅓ -inning, two-run performance in the Sox’ 5-2 win in Kansas City Wednesday.
He once again showed improved fastball velocity, sitting around 93-94 m.p.h. and topping out at 95.
Yet there was something unfamiliar about the way Price dissected the Royals lineup. According to BrooksBaseball.net, Price threw fastballs on just 34 of 108 pitches — a 31 percent usage rate that represented the lowest for any single start of his career.
Why? Perhaps Price wanted to mix his pitches in atypical fashion against a free-swinging, contact-making team. Except that in Price’s previous outing, against an Astros team renowned for swings and misses, Price threw fastballs on just 38 of 112 pitches (34 percent, his previous low). And in his previous outing against a Yankees lineup that had been awful, Price threw fastballs on just 37 of 102 pitches (36 percent).
In only one other start of his career before this season had he thrown fastballs on less than 40 percent of his pitches. On the season, he’s throwing fastballs a career-low 46.2 percent of the time — the 87th-lowest usage rate of 100 non-knuckleball starters.
That’s not an indictment, of course. Clayton Kershaw barely cracks the 50 percent threshold with his fastball usage. Felix Hernandez has succeeded for years throwing his fastball less than half the time. Ditto Cole Hamels.
If a pitcher has a diverse arsenal — and Price does, with the ability to mix his fastball with cutters, changeups, and curveballs, all of which he threw liberally Wednesday — then he need not rely primarily on a fastball, which in turn means that his success is not dependent on velocity.
Throughout his career, Price had shown all of the traits of a top pitch-mixer capable of adjusting his arsenal even before he needed to do so. His ability to incorporate a changeup or a cutter or a curveball at different stages of his career — and to know how to execute with them — played a role in convincing the Sox that he was worth a record-setting sum, given that he’d be able to fight decline by adjusting his pitch usage.
Now, at least for three starts, it appears that Price may be experimenting with just such an undertaking. It remains to be seen whether he continues it, or whether this is a blip. But at the least, this is a blip that has recurred three times, in a fashion unlike any other in the lefthander’s career.
Alex Speier can be reached at email@example.com.