On Sunday, David Price was lit up for six runs and 11 hits by the Angels, including a pair of homers by Albert Pujols. The barrage sent the Rays to their ninth defeat in the past 13 games, and continued the odd, frustrating season of the 28-year-old southpaw, who has been rocked for at least six runs in three of his last seven starts.
Price's 4.28 ERA is his highest since his 2009 rookie season, while his 91 ERA+ is his career worst. A peak under the hood suggests that he's not pitching nearly that badly; his 3.22 FIP — based on his strikeout, walk and home run rates — is 0.14 runs per nine lower than his career norm, and just 0.17 higher than in his 2012 AL Cy Young-winning campaign. The way he's getting there, however, is rather unusual: In his AL-high 69 1/3 innings, Price has allowed nearly twice as many homers (11) as walks (six). Over his past four starts, he's walked just one batter but served up four dingers.
Such a season isn't entirely unprecedented in the annals, but it is extremely rare. Among ERA qualifiers (162 innings in a full season), only one pitcher since 1901 has allowed at least twice as many homers as walks, and even using a cutoff of 50 innings, only 11 pitchers have allowed even 1.5 times as many homers as walks. Here they are, ranked by ratio after stripping out the intentional passes:
|3||Josh Towers||2003||Blue Jays||64.3||15||6||2.50|
|8||Scott Sanderson||1994||White Sox||92.0||20||11||1.82|
Limiting the walks isn't the only thing Price is doing well. Via an AL-high 77 strikeouts, he's whiffing 10.0 per nine, well above his previous career mark of 8.1 per nine. Between that combination and his AL-best 0.8 walks per nine, he has the majors' best strikeout-to-walk ratio at 12.8.
Price's astronomical home run rate (1.4 per nine) owes something to bad luck. He's allowed six of his 11 homers at Tropicana Field, one of the AL's most homer-suppressing parks; via The Bill James Handbook 2014, the Trop's three-year park home run factors are 93 for lefties and 85 for righties. His 14.7 percent rate of home runs per flyball, while not nearly as bad as league leaders CC Sabathia (23.3 percent) and Brandon McCarthy (21.4 percent), is well above his previous mark of 9.0 percent. Also owing more than a little to bad luck is Price's .351 batting average on balls in play, up 52 points from last year and 70 from his previous career mark. With men on base, his BABIP is .388, compared to .331 with the bases empty.
A closer look at the park-adjusted PITCHf/x data at BrooksBaseball.net shows that Price's fastball velocity is virtually unchanged from last year (94.7 mph), when he pitched poorly through nine starts before missing seven weeks due to a triceps strain, then returned to form over the season's final three months. Even so, both years are 1.9 mph off his 2012 velocity. Note that he throws his sinker more than twice as often as his four-seamer, and while that proportion used to be higher, it's only the latter that's been giving him trouble. Here's a look at his last three seasons:
|Year||FF%||FF AVG||FF SLG||SI%||SI AVG||SI SLG|
Meanwhile, Price's changeup, which he throws 17.2 percent of the time, has been getting tattooed for a .320 average and .620 slugging percentage, where he had yielded a .224 average and .355 slugging percentage over the previous two years.
Even with his struggles, Price is hardly the weak link in the Rays' rotation. Chris Archer (4.59 ERA), Jake Odorizzi (4.89 ERA) and Cesar Ramos (5.04 ERA as a starter) all have higher ERAs while combining for just five quality starts — as many as Price himself — in 22 turns, while Erik Bedard (2.78 ERA) has just two quality starts out of six. But with Matt Moore done for the year due to Tommy John surgery, Alex Cobb sidelined since April 12 due to an oblique strain and Jeremy Hellickson still recovering from January elbow surgery, the Rays have needed Price in ace-caliber form, and thus far he hasn't been that stopper. The rotation as a whole is averaging a league-low 5.5 innings per start (5.1 without Price's contribution). Thus the bullpen has thrown a league-high 154 innings, with a lousy ERA (4.32) founded in the league's third-highest homer rate (1.1 per nine) and fourth-lowest strikeout rate (7.2 per nine).
At 19-26, the Rays are off to their worst start since 2007, before they had exorcised the "Devil" from their name. Their .422 winning percentage is the league's second-worst, their negative-22 run differential fourth-worst. Even so, they're just five games back in the underwhelming AL East, a division where four of the five participants have been outscored, and their chances for turning things around should be helped by the return of Cobb, which could come as early as Thursday; he threw five innings of shutout ball for High-A Charlotte in the first start of his rehab assignment on Saturday.
If the Rays play up to their potential as contenders over the next six to 10 weeks, odds are that they'll hold onto Price — who's making $14 million this year and has one more year of arbitration eligibility before reaching free agency — for the remainder of the season. If they can't pick up the pace, the question becomes whether they'll trade Price in-season, when his appeal would primarily be limited to contenders, or to hold off until the winter, when his market would theoretically be larger but the return in prospects smaller, because his new team would have him for only one stretch run (if that) instead of two. Speculation swirled that he would be dealt amid a weak free agent market this past winter, but nothing materialized. No matter how the Rays do this year, they're likely better off dealing him than letting him walk, since their farm system has been depleted by graduations and draft mistakes. Since blockbuster trades generally don't happen in May or even June, there's little point to speculating where Price could be headed. If he does hit the market, chances are that his pitching line will have normalized at least somewhat, giving prospective suitors a clearer idea of what they're getting.