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David Price swaps called strikeouts for swinging ones

The lefty heads to Toronto a different pitcher — but just as dominant — than years past.

Hitters have offered more at Price's pitches in the zone.
Hitters have offered more at Price's pitches in the zone.
Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

In the mania of the trade deadline, when players move rapidly from team to team and teams buy and sell without abandon, it's easy to overlook the minute traits of the men who switch teams. Transaction anaylses (mine included) typically focus on the clubs, including only a brief note of the performance to date and rest-of-season projection for the players. There's nothing wrong with that approach, but in the cases where the player has done something notably differently prior to the deal — which would pertain to his play in his new destination — a more in-depth look would help.

David Price changed teams recently, coming to the Blue Jays from the Tigers to help the former with its push for a title. By any metric, he's pitched as well as ever in 2015. Compared to the previous four years — in which he posted an ERA- of 83 and a FIP- of 77 — he's allowed far fewer runs, dropping his ERA to 36 percent better than average. While his FIP has stayed the same, a defense-independent line that top the league average by 23 percent still places him among the best pitchers in the game.

Price has always derived a lot of his success from strikeouts, and that hasn't altered in 2015. His 23.3 percent strikeout rate may have declined a bit from the 24.1 percent mark he posted from 2011 to 2014, but he still fans a solid share of batters. Interestingly, though, the means by which he's attained those strikeouts has changed.

Let's look at Price's yearly rates of looking strikeouts (as a percentage of total punchouts), along with their status among fellow American League hurlers:

Season L/SO% AL Rank
2011 38.1% 3rd
2014 41.0% 3rd
2013 44.4% 2nd
2014 38.7% 6th
2015 27.5% 20th

There's a definite trend here. Price used to catch hitters looking, to a significant degree; now, he mixes in a lot more swinging strikeouts. This doesn't have much to do with sequencing — Price's overall looking strike rate has dropped from 20.5 percent to 17.5 percent, while his swinging strike rate has jumped from 9.8 percent to 12.3 percent. Because the average in each regard usually hangs around 17 percent and 9 percent, respectively, Price has transformed from a high-called, mediocre-swinging strike guy to a mediocre-called, high-swinging strike guy.

Part of the blame for this falls on the players behind the plate. James McCann, who has caught most of Price's games in 2015, ranks 87th out of 89 catchers in pitch-framing ability. Coming from Tampa Bay, where framing god Jose Molina served as his primary catcher for most of his tenure, Price has obviously seen a bit of a dropoff. Perhaps reacting to that, he's thrown fewer borderline pitches this year:

Year Edge%
2011 20.5%
2012 20.0%
2013 18.3%
2014 18.9%
2015 17.3%

Russell Martin has always excelled at receiving, so presumably Price will garner more favorable calls as a Blue Jay. In turn, he may go back to painting the corners, and thereafter see some rise in looking strikeouts.

But the backstops didn't create this situation. Across the 2011 through 2014 campaigns, opposing hitters swung at 60.5 percent of the pitches Price threw in the strike zone and made contact on 80.4 percent of their swings overall. 2015 has seen those numbers shift to 65.5 percent and 77.0 percent, respectively. Independent (probably) of the game-caller, Price has lost deception, while he's gained power.

His pitch usage has had a hand in this. A different offering has assumed the role of primary hard pitch:

The four-seam fastball, which has always caused more whiffs and fewer looks than the sinker, has comprised more than a third of Price's pitches. This has certainly helped him with swinging strikes, and the continued improvement of the changeup — probably the best pitch in his arsenal — has made a difference there as well. That pitch has never fooled batters to the extent that it has thus far:

As with many variations in pitch results where velocity remains stable (relative to last year, at least), location has driven this. Price has traditionally gone low and away with the changeup, in and out of the zone:

By contrast, the 2015 version of the pitch goes lower more often, avoiding the outer part of the plate:

Heading down has always paid off for Price's changeup, and 2015 hasn't altered that.

While this pitch has reached a new height, the cutter has plummeted. Its once-steady looking strike rate (22.3 percent from 2011 to 2014) has come all the way down to 15.9 percent, accounting for a lot of the drop in Price's backward Ks. And like the changeup, the cutter's placement has precipitated its evolution:

Batters never swung at Price's cutters on the outer reaches of the zone, making that a beneficial spot for them to reside. Somehow, though, he's just lost control of them:

Hitting the dirt in far too many of its appearances, Price's cutter has become pretty wild. In the end, however, the rise of the changeup has covered for it.

With several types of pitches contributing, Price has jumped from looking strikeouts to swinging strikeouts. Some of this will likely revert to the ways of old once he settles in Toronto; some of it will likely stay, for better or for worse. There doesn't appear to be any real downside to this exchange, aside from a possible rise in reaches on swinging third strikes, which a commanding pitcher such as Price probably won't have to worry about. He still does as well as anyone in the game, by any means.

In this hectic time of year, it's important to keep in mind that baseball still takes place. The players don't remain static, and noting as much (especially when they've departed to a contender) makes for a juicy storyline. Price isn't the pitcher that Detroit received last year, so who knows what he'll be when he hits the postseason?

. . .

Ryan Romano is an editor for Beyond the Box Score. He also writes about the Orioles on Camden Depot (and on Camden Chat that one time), and about the Brewers on BP Milwaukee.