Just One Piece Of The Puzzle
This season is off to an odd start of sorts for David Price. Four times this season, he has allowed at least eight hits in a start, twice he has permitted at least six earned runs in a start, and he has permitted at least five well-hit balls in each of his previous five starts. Through seven starts, he has yielded eight home runs, whereas last season, he allowed 16 in 27 outings. His velocity is down from its peak level in 2012, and yet his current strikeout rate is a career-best and a 34 percent improvement from his level in 2013.
How is he striking out more batters with less velocity?
Price is currently 11th on the strikeout rate leaderboard as his swinging strike rate (SwStr%) and called strike rate (ClStk%) are both above the league average.
|1. Jose Fernandez (MIA)||182||35.7%||15.3%||38.0%|
|2. Stephen Strasburg (WSH)||174||33.3%||15.0%||36.3%|
|3. Max Scherzer (DET)||182||33.0%||14.5%||32.0%|
|4. Masahiro Tanaka (NYY)||168||30.4%||15.2%||35.6%|
|5. Zack Greinke (LAD)||156||30.1%||12.0%||37.4%|
|6. Jon Lester (BOS)||193||30.1%||10.3%||34.6%|
|7. Johnny Cueto (CIN)||205||29.3%||11.2%||33.7%|
|8. Felix Hernandez (SEA)||188||28.2%||14.2%||35.5%|
|9. Michael Wacha (STL)||178||28.1%||14.5%||33.2%|
|10. Yordano Ventura (KC)||146||28.1%||13.9%||31.8%|
|11. David Price (TB)||201||27.4%||12.4%||40.9%|
|12. Drew Hutchison (TOR)||139||27.3%||12.1%||28.0%|
|13. Jesse Chavez (OAK)||150||27.3%||9.6%||42.1%|
|14. Ervin Santana (ATL)||132||27.3%||16.8%||32.6%|
|15. Yu Darvish (TEX)||160||26.3%||9.5%||34.2%|
The league average for SwStr% is 10.2 percent and Price has the 13th-best rate of all qualified starting pitchers. The league average for ClStk% is 33.8 percent and only Jesse Chavez, Cliff Lee, and Andrew Cashner have a higher percentage of called strikes than Price. Price is not the only pitcher to have above average results in those areas, but has one of the largest gains in strikeout rate from 2013 in the league. Brandon McCarthy’s 2014 strikeout rate has improved 61 percent over last season as he has added more velocity. Zack Greinke’s 2014 strikeout rate has improved 57 percent over last season as he has reduced the usage of his cutter and has increased the utilization of his changeup. Ervin Santana has changed leagues and has tripled the usage of his changeup.
Price has done none of those things, but has seen his strikeout rate improve from a 20% rate last season to a 27% rate this season. He is doing this by getting ahead in the count right out of the gate.
|1. David Price (TB)||201||74.1%||10.4%||61.8%|
|2. Jeremy Guthrie (KC)||164||70.7%||4.3%||62.2%|
|3. Jordan Zimmermann (WSH)||156||70.5%||8.3%||54.0%|
|4. Jeff Samardzija (CHC)||201||70.1%||7.5%||57.4%|
|5. CC Sabathia (NYY)||183||69.9%||7.7%||58.3%|
|6. Phil Hughes (MIN)||146||69.9%||9.6%||55.1%|
|7. Ervin Santana (ATL)||132||68.9%||8.3%||56.4%|
|8. Matt Garza (MIL)||185||68.6%||7.6%||51.3%|
|9. Gerrit Cole (PIT)||164||68.3%||4.9%||55.2%|
|10. Clay Buchholz (BOS)||148||68.2%||8.8%||52.5%|
|11. Nathan Eovaldi (MIA)||179||68.2%||6.1%||54.0%|
|12. Cliff Lee (PHI)||202||67.8%||6.4%||52.9%|
|13. Alex Wood (ATL)||182||67.6%||5.5%||50.8%|
|14. Roenis Elias (SEA)||144||67.4%||5.6%||57.3%|
|15. Andrew Cashner (SD)||191||67.0%||3.7%||54.0%|
Batters know that Price has the highest percentage of first pitch strikes in the league, so they come to the plate ready to swing. His SwStr% is fourth-best in the league behind Yordano Ventura, Zack Greinke, and Tyson Ross while only Jeremy Guthrie has a higher percentage of called first strikes.
That first strike is critical for a pitcher in terms of striking out batters. It is not strongly correlated to strong or weak strikeout rates for a pitcher because the steps from strike one to strike three are important, but there is a distinct advantage for pitchers getting ahead in the count. Since 2009, when a pitcher falls behind 1-0 in a count, they have gone on to strike out 15.1 percent of the batters they face. If a pitcher throws a first pitch strike, they go on to strike out 26.7 percent of the batters they face.
You can rarely teach a pitcher to add more velocity, but you can help them throw more strikes. Before Price went on the disabled list in 2013, he threw first pitch strikes 61 percent of the time and struck out 22% of the batters he faced. Since returning from the disabled list, he has thrown first pitch strikes 70 percent of the time and, despite the decline in velocity, has maintained his 22% strikeout rate with the added benefit of fewer walks and fewer runs allowed as well as fewer pitches. Before the stint on the disabled list, Price averaged 3.97 pitches per plate appearance. Since returning from the disabled list with his new approach, he averages 3.64 pitches per plate appearance.
Velocity is a great thing for pitchers, but it is not the only thing that can make them successful. Getting ahead in the count allows the pitcher to be more aggressive with that they throw, and forces the batter to become more protective. The key is getting into those counts.