As midnight neared on July 1, David Price spoke in a subdued whisper as he tried to process the pounding he’d just absorbed in Yankee Stadium. The five homers launched against him by the Yankees left him in a state of some bewilderment — but also, with a sense of clarity that what he’d done hadn’t worked.
“It’s time for me to kind of go back to that drawing board,” Price said, “and kind of reinvent myself against these guys.”
Five weeks later, Price (11-6 with a 3.97 ERA and 8.8 strikeouts per nine innings) once again will take the mound against the Yankees on Sunday night, this time in Fenway Park. In the intervening weeks — particularly the last three — he’s been true to his promise to go about an overhaul that acknowledges precisely where he is at this stage of his career.
For most of his big league career, Price has been defined foremost by the ability to dominate opponents with a fastball that combined both elite velocity and precise location. From 2010-12, when he averaged more than 95 miles per hour with his two- and four-seam fastballs, he seemed almost like a unicorn in a big league rotation, someone capable of overpowering other lineups with the kind of power rarely seen from a rotation member.
Price didn’t simply rest on that trait, however. He purposefully altered his pitch mix, even at a time when he didn’t necessarily need to, in hopes of achieving even greater dominance while also laying the foundation for a later time in his career when he might not have the same velocity at his disposal.
“I think that’s something I thought of a long time ago . . . I knew at some point I’d have to evolve,” Price reflected. “I took a lot of pride in that, evolving at the big league level. That’s not something that’s easy to do. It definitely takes time. You’re going to have to take your lumps while doing it. You’re just going to have to continue to work on it.”
In many ways, the 2018 campaign has proven that perspective prophetic. This season, Price has averaged 92.6 m.p.h. with his fastballs (the combined average of his two- and four-seamers), a mark that is almost exactly in line with the big league average of 92.7 mph.
With less velocity to work with, and more vulnerability when he misses his spots (as evidenced by his career-high 1.3 homers per nine innings), Price has used the pitch with decreased frequency. He’s throwing the fastball less than half the time (48.4 percent), the lowest usage rate of his career. He’s using it even less (45.5 percent) on the first pitch of at-bats, and he’s getting fewer swings and misses (6.9 percent, roughly one out of every 16 fastballs) than he has in years.
|Year||Velocity (mph)||Fastball %||First pitch fastball %||Fastball swing-and-miss %|
Price refers in the past tense to his early career in Tampa Bay “when I still had that electric fastball.” He believes that, somewhat like former Tigers teammate Justin Verlander, his velocity dip is a product not of irreversible decline but instead a reflection of temporary physical circumstances, chiefly his elbow issues in 2017 and his wrist/circulatory issues this year.
“I’ve battled a lot of stuff the last two years with my arm. It’s feeling a lot better now,” said Price. “I know my fastball is going to be back.”
Yet Price believes that the power of that pitch will be a product of a full, healthy offseason entering 2019. For now, he is aware of what is available to him and is trying to make the most of it. He understands that while pitching at 91-93 m.p.h., he faces different limitations than he did at 94-98 m.p.h.
“I don’t think of [the fastball] as a different pitch,” said Price. “I know I have less room for error with it.”
The Yankees fiasco — eight runs on nine hits and five homers in 3⅓ innings — along with a subsequent disappointment in his next outing against the Royals (4 runs in 4⅔ innings) has indeed pushed Price to make changes. In three starts since July 12, Price has a 1.71 ERA with 18 strikeouts and two walks in 21 innings.
Yet the way he’s excelling is distinct from what he’s exhibited in much of his recent career. Price accepted that he could no longer focus solely on attacking righthanders with his fastball and cutter on the inner part of the plate.
Rather than trying to overpower hitters, he’s spent more time throwing pitches to fool them. Significantly, he moved from the third-base side of the rubber to the first-base side, something that has allowed him to combine back-door cutters that nip the plate from his arm side with front-door two-seam fastballs that sneak over the opposite corner. In doing so, he’s taken away hitters’ ability to sit on a location, with strong results.
“Moving back over to the first-base side, being able to hit that outside corner with both the cutter and two-seam, have guys looking outside, then I can get my fastball — both two-seamer and four-seamer — in for effect,” said Price.
On top of that, according to pitching coach Dana LeVangie, Price has also lowered his arm slot slightly in an effort both to find greater comfort on the mound and in an effort to increase his ability to manipulate his pitches.
“He came out and made the big adjustment himself,” said LeVangie. “He said, ‘I’m done throwing over the top. It’s more taxing when I have to do that.’ So he went out and made a commitment to change and helped himself along the way . . . [It] has allowed him to throw his off-speed pitches a little more consistently, effectively, with the hand out front, which has allowed him to show more of an off-speed mix.”
Time after time in his most recent start against the Phillies, he’d start hitters with changeups, cutters, or curveballs, working his way backward to fastballs that froze the Philadelphia lineup. In his last three outings, Price has thrown, on average, just 38.2 percent fastballs, while going with his other weapons 72 percent of the time on the first pitch of a plate appearance.
Taken individually, these are all significant changes in what he’s doing on the mound. Taken collectively, they represent the fulfillment of his vow following that start against New York.
As he prepares to take the mound on Sunday, Price expresses confidence that his alterations will put him in a better position to move past his struggles against New York thus far this year. Whether those changes will produce better results remains to be seen, but as he approaches what will be another highly scrutinized outing against a potential playoff foe, Price expresses confidence in what he’s done to get ready for it.
“I’ve done this for a long time. I’ve had my ups and downs. I’ve continued to evolve. I’m going to continue to evolve . . . I’m not going to let any start or two bad starts define my season,” said Price. “What I meant by reinventing myself against them was giving them a different look . . . I trust in what I’ve been doing. I’ll take it from there.”