Through two starts with his new team, David Price is looking every bit like the ace the Blue Jays hoped to acquire. He has surrendered only one earned run in 15 innings while allowing just six hits and racking up 18 strikeouts. He has looked as dominant as ever recently, but he is achieving that dominance in a slightly different way.
Much has been made of young, hard-throwing pitchers "learning to pitch" as they age. This is a short way of expressing that when velocity fades (as it typically does as a pitcher ages), pitchers need to find a different way to be successful. Most frequently, pitchers will learn to be successful as they age by relying on movement and changing speeds rather than their diminished velocity.
Price is nearly 30 years old, well into the period of most pitchers’ careers when velocity takes a backseat to movement and changing speeds, however, David Price is not most pitchers. Price has altered his pitching style, but he has not followed the traditional blueprint of leaning on movement and offspeed pitches due to a drop in velocity.
Price’s velocity has not dropped this season, but rather risen to 94 MPH, his highest average since his career high of 95.5 in 2012. That 94.0 average fastball velocity is second among all qualified left handed starters in the league (Chris Sale is first) - not bad for an "aging" starter. Even better, over his last seven starts, Price’s average fastball velocity has averaged at least 94.0 in every outing, including a 95.1 average fastball velocity in his first start in Toronto. The ability to command mid-90’s heat from the left side - one of the qualities that made Price so highly touted as a prospect coming out of Vanderbilt - is certainly still present.
In spite of his maintained velocity, Price has been consistently tweaking his repertoire ever since he entered the league. In 2008, Price was close to a fastball-slider only guy. He threw his fastball 69 percent of the time, the slider 30 percent of the time, and the changeup just over 1 percent of the time. Since then, his slider usage has dropped each subsequent season until transitioning to the "cutter" label in 2012. Meanwhile, his changeup usage has increased drastically since his debut. The chart below shows his changeup usage (marked as offspeed and as a percent of total pitches) by year.
There is a clear upward trend here, and a trend that has only been exaggerated of late. Price has been heavily relying on his changeup over his past few starts more than he ever has in the past. His changeup usage over his past six starts is shown on the chart below.
The increase in changeup usage is well justified. While the whiff percentage of his fastball and breaking pitches in 2015 is about 10 percent, the whiff rate on the changeup is an outstanding 20.72 percent, more than double the average of either of the other pitch categories!
The biggest statistical benefit of his increase in changeup usage is balancing his platoon splits. Price has always dominated lefties, and is continuing to do so this season. His .277 wOBA against for lefties this season is above his career .255 average, but under last season’s .292 mark. Right-handed hitters, however, have seen their wOBA against Price fall to .275, his lowest mark in three years and well below his career .296 mark.
The changeup is typically a better weapon to opposite handed hitters than to same side hitters as the pitch fades to a pitchers’ armside, away from an opposite handed batter. Meanwhile, breaking pitches, with the exception of a true 12-6 curveball, move laterally to a pitchers’ gloveside and towards an opposite handed hitter. Generally speaking, it is easier for a batter to hit a pitch that is moving laterally towards him than it is to hit a pitch moving laterally away. There are certainly other variables at play, but I believe the increased reliance on – and more importantly the success of – the changeup has given Price a tremendous weapon to neutralize right handed hitters.
In an era where platoons are becoming increasingly common, his lack of a split will prevent opposing teams from simply stacking their lineups with right-handed hitters. Price still has the velocity that has helped him enjoy a very successful career to date but he is now featuring a quality changeup as his primary offspeed pitch. This change is pitch selection has helped him erase his platoon split and be just as effective against right-handed hitters as he is against left handed hitters. Unless the league makes a significant adjustment to his tweaked repertoire, look for Price to continue to find success with the changeup and continue to be an ace for the Blue Jays.
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Dan Weigel is a contributor at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow his pitching tweets on twitter at @danweigel38.