True or false: David Price has pitched well this season.
I'd bet most Rays fans would say "False." On the surface, Price hasn't lived up to preseason expectations. After posting a 2.72 ERA and winning 19 games last season, making a bid for the AL Cy Young Award, Price has had mixed results in 2011.
His ERA is a full point higher (3.76), and he has won only nine games. He has allowed four earned runs or more in nine games (after doing that twice last year). And over the past month — the sink-or-swim moment of the season for the Rays — he has a disappointing 5.04 ERA.
So what's wrong with Price?
As it turns out, not much.
When you dig beyond ERA and wins, it becomes evident that Price has pitched much better than it appears. He has increased his strikeout rate to a career high (8.6 per nine innings) and has dramatically lowered his walk rate (2.0), giving him the ninth-best strikeout-to-walk ratio in baseball. When you consider that ahead of Price are names such as Roy Halladay, Justin Verlander, Cliff Lee and Clayton Kershaw, he's in some very good company.
Erik Hahmann from DRaysBay recently put Price's season in historical perspective. There have been 1,374 pitchers who have pitched 180 innings or more in back-to-back seasons. Of those, only 31 have lowered their walk rate as much as Price has, and only 31 have improved their K/BB ratios as much.
But walks aren't the only way a pitcher can allow baserunners. What about hits? Price has a .234 batting average against, slightly higher than last season's .219, but it's not a large enough increase to negate his improved walk rate. He has allowed fewer overall baserunners than last season, averaging 1.1 per inning to last season's 1.2.
So if Price is striking out more batters and allowing fewer baserunners, then why is his ERA so much higher this season?
Once a batter reaches base, Price is having a tough time preventing him from scoring. When the bases are empty, teams are hitting .219/.262/.366 (batting average/on-base/slugging) against him. Once a batter reaches scoring position, those numbers jump to .300/.374/.464. In other words, it's as though Miguel Olivo is hitting when the bases are empty, then once a runner gets in scoring position, Carlos Gonzalez steps to the plate.
These high-leverage struggles are an ironic twist, considering Price was one of the 20 most clutch pitchers of 2010. When runners reached scoring position against him last year, he slammed the door, limiting hitters to a .187/.262/.283 line. Clutch performance is like that; it varies widely from year to year, and it's impossible to predict which players will be "clutch" going forward.
Just because Price has struggled in high-leverage situations doesn't mean he'll continue to do so. The question is will he improve by the end of the season or will it take until next year?
Also, Price's struggles over the past month appear to be location-related, as he's walking more batters than earlier in the year and leaving a surprising number of hittable pitches over the plate. It may be that he's being too cautious of walking batters and, as a result, giving hitters juicy pitches in favorable counts instead of risking the walk by trying to hit his spots.
But as James Shields has shown through his success this season, this is far from an insurmountable problem.
It has not always looked that way, but Price has given Rays fans a big reason to be excited. He has taken steps forward this year toward being an even better pitcher than he was last season, even if that progress hasn't shown up in his ERA yet.
Once Price gets everything to click into place, the rest of the American League should take note. He's already one of the best pitchers in baseball, and he just keeps getting better and better.
Steve Slowinski is editor-in-chief of DRaysBay.com, a blog on the Tampa Bay Rays that specializes in analysis and statistics.