Let’s start with a little game of good news, bad news. As is tradition, the good news comes first: after inking a seven-year deal worth upwards of $200 million with the Boston Red Sox this offseason, left-handed ace David Price has begun the season with a record of 4-0 in his first six starts. The bad news: he currently sits on a 6.14 ERA, fourth-worst in the America League among qualified starters. After a six-run, seven-inning outing against the New York Yankees at Fenway Park on Sunday night, Price’s home ERA sits at 8.34 while his mark on the road looks much better at 2.57.
While one might argue that Price has benefited from facing poor offenses on the road — not a totally inaccurate claim, as the Atlanta Braves and Cleveland Indians rank 30th and 18th in the MLB in wRC+ — he has also faced some pretty bad offenses at home. The two games he’s gotten roughed up the worst have been against the Tampa Bay Rays and New York Yankees, who rank 21st and 22nd in wRC+ themselves. Price’s two better home starts have come against the best offenses he’s faced all season in the Baltimore Orioles and Toronto Blue Jays, who are the 3rd and 14th best offenses in baseball by wRC+.
If metrics are your thing, you’ll be glad to know that Price’s FIP and xFIP look much better a 2.88 and 2.67, respectively. FIP and xFIP are useful as measures of performance for a pitcher because they factor in only strikeouts, walks, and home runs allowed; the so-called “three true outcomes”. Price has been good in those respects so far, working to a 49:9 K:BB ratio and allowing just four homers in 36.2 innings, good for a perfectly average 1.0 HR/9. What has hurt the Sox new hurler so far has been what happens when the ball is put in play against him, particularly at home.
Price’s strikeout and walk numbers have been quite similar on the road and at home so far in 2016: he owns a 25:5 K:BB ratio at home and a 24:4 mark on the road. However, the batted ball results are a completely different story. On the road, Price has held opponents’ bats in check nicely, allowing just 11 hits — all singles — over fourteen innings of work. At home, Price has gotten lit up, allowing 27 hits in 22.2 innings, including eight doubles, one triple, and four home runs.
While it may seem quite concerning to hear that Price has gotten legitimately rocked by multiple teams at home this season, there’s a bit of a silver lining to the dark, stormy cloud brewing in your head. Price’s BABIP — batting average on balls in play — has been astronomically high at home as well as on the road so far this year. At home, Price’s BABIP against sits at .371, while on the road the mark is .367. In context, this means that batters are reaching base on nearly four out of every ten balls put in play against Price. When factoring home runs (which don’t count towards BABIP because they’re technically not “in play”), Price’s opponents are hitting .404 on batted balls against him this season.
While this may seem like Price is getting hit hard, Price’s average batted ball velocity — 90.0 mph even according to Statcast — is just one mile per hour above the league average of 89.0 mph. Last season, league average BABIP was .299 – 71 points lower than Price’s current season mark of .370. As we’ve learned in the Statcast era, exit velocity has a lot to do with batting average. Take a look at a graph of the relationship between the two variables in MLB this season:
So, given the strong relationship between batting average and batted ball velocity, it’s reasonable to assume that a pitcher who allows average contract velocity — as Price does — would likely allow an average BABIP. So far, however, Price has been the victim of some bad BABIP luck despite allowing what’s averaged out to be about average contact.
In all likelihood, Price’s BABIP against will likely level out as the season goes on. In his entire eight-year career prior to this season, Price has never allowed a BABIP above .308 over a full season of work. Entering 2016, his career BABIP against was a modest .286. Historically, there’s nothing that indicates this hard-hitting trend will continue against the new Sox southpaw. As some people have noted, his velocity is a bit down this season across the board, but by less than two miles per hour. There’s a couple of factors that could explain that quite easily, however, if you’re really worried about a couple ticks on the radar gun.
First would be the nature of the pitcher’s arm; velocity tends to peak mid-season, when your arm has built up strength from months of pitching in major league games but isn’t fatigued with the toll of two hundred innings bearing down on your shoulder. We’re just six games into the season, and Price’s fastball velocity has historically peaked after April. The other factor is the weather; Price has pitched in some tough conditions so far this season, including a sub-40 degree day in Cleveland on Opening Day and a cool, rainy night on Sunday night in Boston. There’s no reason to believe anything is wrong, as Price builds strength and endurance in his arm and the weather warms into the summer, his velocity should reach more usual levels.
Other than that, there’s not much to worry about for David Price so far this season. In plain terms, he’s been the victim of a bit of bad batted-ball luck so far, and those bad luck spurts have unfortunately come in bunches at Fenway Park this year. As the season wears on, the sample size grows, and Price hits his stride and builds some consistency, the results should begin to follow the solid body of work he has turned in this season. He’s striking batters out. He’s not been walking many batters. With the exception of one game against the Rays, he’s battling through whatever batted ball woes he’s experiencing and turning in long starts. Let’s give it until the end of May before we start losing our minds over a couple bad games for a man who has been one of the best pitchers in the American League for nearly a decade now. Give it time – David Price is going to be just fine.