The Tampa Bay Rays are likely going to trade David Price in July. And when they do, they're likely going to get some really good stuff in return.
But here's a warning for all interested parties: Be careful on this one, man. Price is still a very good pitcher, but neither his present nor his future is as bright as his past.
A few days after Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times wrote how it's becoming "increasingly obvious" that a Price trade is going to happen, ESPN's Buster Olney is saying rival officials believe the Rays are ready to deal "right now."
Olney cited additional sources who said the Rays "aren't actually close" to trading Price, mind you. Nonetheless, he is right in thinking that, thanks to the Rays' 31-47 record and Price's looming free agency after 2015, "the climate is right" for the 2012 American League Cy Young winner to be dealt.
As for the 28-year-old's value, the notion that Price has pitched better than his 3.81 ERA is already widespread. There are numbers that support this, starting with these from ESPN Stats & Info:
Price has earned his remarkable K/BB ratio. According to FanGraphs, he's throwing more first-pitch strikes, more pitches in the strike zone and getting more whiffs than he ever has as a starter.
And it's largely because of his K/BB ratio that Price fares a lot better in metrics that value strikeouts and walks when determining what a pitcher's ERA should be. Those include FIP, xFIP and SIERA, which agree that Price deserves better than a 3.81 ERA.
Ordinarily, I recommend taking these metrics' word for it when it comes to assessing a given pitcher's effectiveness. By focusing largely on strikeouts and walks, they focus on the two most important things a pitcher can control better than ERA does.
But Price is a special case. For all the stats that say he's perhaps never been harder to hit, a deeper dive says the exact opposite is the real truth.
We can begin with the obvious: Price's heat is not what it used to be. After a two-mile-per-hour drop in average fastball velocity in 2013, according to FanGraphs, Price's average velocity is down again to a career-low 92.9 miles per hour in 2014.
And while Olney noted that Price's velocity has gotten better, there's a catch to that. He did go from an average of 92.1 in March/April to 93.6 in May, but he is back down to 93.1 in June. Outside of May, he has indeed been working with career-worst fastball velocity in 2014.
It's to Price's credit that he's still been able to get whiffs with his hard stuff. In fact, there's a chart at Brooks Baseball that shows how all his pitches are experiencing increased whiff rates.
But there's also this one, which shows the rate at which Price's pitches have been turned into fly balls:
Focus on the black and gray lines. Those represent Price's four-seamer and sinker, otherwise known as the hard pitches he's using most often. Both have clearly been easier than usual to elevate in 2014.
This helps explain not only Price's diminished ground-ball habit, but his home run problem as well.
Price has already matched his 2012 and 2013 totals with 16 home runs allowed in 2014, and Brooks Baseball tells us seven homers of those homers have come on four-seamers and sinkers. This after giving up only six homers on those two pitches in all of 2013.
That Price's diminished velocity has something to do with this is a safe enough assumption. With his hard stuff generally coming across slower than before, hitters stand a better chance of squaring it up.
But that's not the only apparent problem that Price's diminished velocity is causing. It also appears to be impacting his offspeed stuff.
The whole point of offspeed pitches is to fool hitters. One way to do that is getting them off-balance. One thing that can do that job is good velocity differential between a pitcher's fast stuff and slow stuff.
And going off the velocity figures at FanGraphs, good velocity differential between his changeup and curveball and his heat is something Price is lacking in 2014:
The velocity differential between Price's heat and his changeup has never been smaller. The velocity differential between his heat and his curveball, meanwhile, is only slightly bigger than last year's low.
The lack of velocity differential between Price's heat and hook cost him last year, and it's costing him again in 2014:
Meanwhile, things aren't much better with Price's changeup:
Further compounding matters is that Price isn't putting these pitches out of reach. After accounting for just 7.5 percent of his pitches between 2009 and 2012, BaseballSavant.com says changeups and curves inside the strike zone have accounted for 12.0 percent of Price's pitches in 2013 and 2014.
And so far this year, opponents are hitting Price's changeups and curves in the strike zone at a .383 clip with a .728 slugging percentage and seven home runs. He's thus being burned not just by diminished stuff, but by predictability as well.
[As a side note, by pal Jake Dal Porto has more on what's going on with Price's changeup over at Beyond the Box Score.]
All told, there's a pretty good picture of why Price's 3.81 ERA is actually an accurate measure of his effectiveness. His diminished velocity is a problem with both his hard stuff (obviously) and his slow stuff, and his over-willingness to throw his slow stuff in the strike zone isn't helping.
Now, granted, a pitcher who can maintain an ERA at 3.81 or thereabouts is hardly a lost cause. There are a lot of teams that could stand to add a guy like that, especially one who eats innings seemingly by the dozen. Whoever trades for Price will be acquiring an asset for a playoff push. No question about it.
Any team that makes a deal for Price expecting to get a true ace in return, however, is likely to be disappointed.
Convincing Price to throw more offspeed pitches outside the zone can be done, but his old velocity is likely only going to be there in spurts. There's no fixing that, and living with it will mean having to live with more hard-hit balls than Price gave up in his glory days.
And that's just this year. Remember, whoever trades for Price will have him in 2015, too. And at the rate he's going, the diminished talents he has now at age 28 are going to be even more diminished at age 29.
Buyers should be interested, but buyers should also beware.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked.
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