David Price struggled at the onset of the 2016 baseball season. Many critics were quick to turn their head and spout out the, “I told you so’s” and the “this is why you never give a massive contract to a pitcher thirty years or older”.
Something interesting happened with Price. He continued to work hard, continued to take ownership of his shortcomings, and eventually fixed the mechanical shortcomings that plagued him. He rediscovered his mechanics that were nearly flawless before his first pitch with the Boston Red Sox. While his regular season was not one for the ages, it was one that was at least worth value to a team that so desperately needed a man to be called the ace of the staff. Was he really as bad as fans and analysts claim he was in the beginning of the season or was judgement passed too swiftly without diving into the numbers?
Sabermetrics: Off to a Bad Start?
The first two months of the season look bad when reviewing the conventional box score stats that many bloggers and sports networks so hastily rely on for their daily watercooler synopsis.
David Price’s batting average against was on par with historical league averages (.250) and he also nearly struck out 2 batters per inning in April and nearly 1 per inning in May. Somehow though, he managed to still rack up some of the highest earned run averages of his career despite some good old-school stat-sheet peripherals. So what was really happening?
When David Price was hit, he was hit hard. The batters easily squared the ball up and often resulted in extra bases. Price was inevitably falling victim to the old baseball omen of “the batters hitting where they ain’t”. Looking at Price’s first five pitching events (blue dots) his exit velocity against was near or way above league average for almost every start. The chart below depicts the average exit velocity of a ball off the bat (provided by MLB.com’s Baseball Savant).
Now when balls are continually hit hard, and above the league average threshold, it is not uncommon for them to find gaps or even the nosebleed seats, as the aforementioned omen noted. The reasoning for this is that a ball with high exit velocity off the bat will travel faster, potentially have less arc, and provide the fielders with less opportunity to corral the ball before it hits the ground. This phenomenon is evident by Price’s atrocious batting average on balls in play (BABIP), where the dotted line represents league average (graph provided by FanGraphs). Price did not reduce his exit velocities until around his 8th and 10th starts, which not coincidentally, directly correlated with a major drop in his BABIP. The lower exit velocities allow for the fielders more time to position themselves under fly-balls, or have time to field the ball on the ground, in lieu of frozen rope line drives with near zero hang-time.
Now, if you are like me, you are probably wondering, “well how can we attempt to lower BABIP?” That my friend is why infield and outfield shifts exist, and is a completely different topic for another day. Digressing, now does David Price really have control over the ball once it is in play? There are two sides to the story, the first is the intangible MLB statcast goal to determine if exit velocities are an inherent ability of top notch pitchers (another topic for another day, please check back for updates) or if it is simply a matter of some luck, like BABIP can be. So before Major League Baseball and analysts around the United States figure that one out, we have the sabermetric stat of Fielding Independent of Pitching (FIP) or Expected Fielding Independent of Pitching (xFIP). A great FIP is 2.90, average is around 3.80, and awful is 4.70. FIP measures the pitcher’s performance, stripping out the role of defense, as well as any luck indicators such as BABIP. The xFIP regresses the FIP and applies it across the statistically normal situations when a ball is hit into play.
So we have identified that David Price’s first two months were not as bad as the mainstream media has made you believe with an amazing FIP below 2.9 in April and slightly above average 3.62 FIP in May. What it means is that Price had some bad luck on balls in play and his defense did not make things easier for him, but he certainly did not help with high exit velocities. Here is Price’s remaining FIP stats with ERA and BABIP against at the season progressed. Generally speaking as the exit velocities off the bat and the BABIP decrease to more resemble league average, (some marginal statistical significance) the ERA will start to closer match the FIP and xFIP.
David Price and Changed Pitching Mechanics
Many pitchers execute proper mechanics and those that can sustain the mechanics as they fatigue are the ones who become elite starting pitchers. There are laundry lists and almanacs that depict the abundance of pitchers who are relegated to relief roles due to their inability to easily repeat their delivery, release point, and follow through. Now David Price is a proven starting pitcher, but unlike many other sports the art of pitching is as much feel and muscle memory as it is physically gifted talent. Starting pitchers need to effectively reteach themselves their mechanics after a long winter off of rest and relaxation, and sometimes bad habits enter the fray. These ticks or quirks in a wind-up can derail even the most mechanically conscious pitcher and shatter their confidence in the process.
David Price started the season with some poor mechanics, some that have already been well documented with hand placement, but that was only the tip of the mainstream media iceberg.
Let’s take a look at his 4/21/2016 start against the Tampa Bay Rays, where the game result was 8 ER, 6.88xFIP, a 19.64 ERA, and a 92.5 rough exit velocity against. This start set the mental image in stone that David Price was the overpaid ace who would not thrive in Boston.
The image above depicts Price’s mechanical flaws (black and green) as well as an interesting positioning of his back foot on the pitching rubber. Let’s start with black. The leg-kick is an integral part of the transfer of energy from the lower body through the hips into the torso and eventually completes with the energy transfer into the arm and baseball. Keeping his leg pointed downwards at an approximately 30 degree causes his hands to rest lower and indirectly causes a slight forward lean. This is a massive chain reaction that causes subtle changes in the delivery that can result in disjointed mechanics. Conversely, starting from the top, the head should be directly over his belt or his center of gravity. This keeps the pitcher from falling away towards the first base side during his ascent forward.
Lastly let’s discuss the placement of his back foot near the edge of the first base side of the pitching rubber. Setting up on on the far left side of the rubber as a left handed pitcher means that he might get a slight angle advantage on lefties, but he is setting himself to leaving pitches out over the plate against righties.
Now let’s compare his mechanics early in the season, with his more refined mechanics at the end of the 2016 season that closely emulated his successful seasons.
David Price is standing straight up, with his head aligned directly over his waist, which leads to good posture. His leg kick is slightly above parallel which allows more loading of the hips before he springs forward with his back leg and starts the counter-rotation of his lower half. More notably, Price also shifted the starting position of his back foot on the pitching rubber. This creates subtle differences in the angle of attack of Price’s pitching repertoire, particularly his cutter, two-seam fastball, and even helps eliminate issues of leaving the changeup and four-seam fastball over the plate (that he seemed to be susceptible to).
Conventionally, left-handed pitchers would start at far edge of the first base side of the pitching rubber. This would create an advantage for the lefty vs lefty match-ups, but could pose a threat for lefty vs. righty matchups. So this should mean the early in the season his lefty vs lefty split would be slightly better than his lefty vs righty split.
- Lefty vs Lefty through April 0.167 average, .269 OBP, .261 slugging percentage
- Lefty vs Righty through April 0.276 average, 0.333 OBP, .450 slugging percentage
Now taking a look at the changes once David Price shifted his back-foot a few inches towards third base and inevitably stopped leaving so many pitches over the middle of the plate (i.e. two seam and cutter were breaking below the right-handed hitter’s hands and near the right edge of the strike zone).
- Left vs Lefty, May to October 0.284 average, 0.308 OBP, 0.468 slugging percentage
- Lefty vs Right, May to October 0.238 average, 0.287 OBP, .398 slugging percentage
While there are many more variables at work than just the foot placement, it is possible to minimally correlate this change with the exact moment in time when Price changed his footwork. The change in placement is extremely beneficial for pitchers who throw from a rough three-quarter slot and have good movement on the ball.
Glove Side Action and David Price
Glove side action is the process of the pitcher pulling or tucking the glove arm in a semi-forced manner to maximize the pull through of the throwing arm. That may seem complicated, but simply put, the glove side should load the arm for throwing by mirroring or counterbalancing with the throwing arm. We can apply Newton’s Third Law of Physics that says every action has an equal and opposite reaction. The pull through of the glove side arm allows for the last movement of counter-rotation to the upper body as the back legs and hip spring forward.
Following Price’s front arm, you can see a minor twist and slight pulling action towards his hip. However, the pulling action is weak and results in power counter-rotation of the lower half that is visible with a weak back leg whip and half-hearted follow through. This was also something that the Boston Red Sox pitching coach, Carl Willis noted and stated that David Price was working on his glove side action and was something easily fixable and repairable in the gym.
Flash forward to his start against the San Diego Padres later in the season. You can see some gusto in his follow through with a strong downward force in his glove-side that creates a better leg whip and follow through. The last portions of the follow through allow Price to finish his pitches and better command the strike-zone while also limiting the potential for injury.
Baseball is the game of inches as defined by the strike-zone and other metrics, but is a game of millimeters when considering pitching mechanics. The smallest tweak or change in pitching mechanics can derail the rhythm, tempo, and fluidity or veteran ball players. The goal is to harness the mechanics to better leverage the body from head-to-toe and deliver meaningful and well executed pitches. David Price meandered from what made him successful and what brought him value to major league teams, but fortunately he found his way before it was too late in the regular season. Now if only he could get over his post-seasons yips to turn the corner into a truly elite pitcher.