The David Price who took the mound at Yankee Stadium on Tuesday night looked very much like the one who made his major league debut almost a year ago to the day in the ballpark across the street. He still has his lanky 6-foot-6 frame, still possesses a power fastball and an aggressive delivery, and, most notably, still has the label of "Baseball's Next Great Pitcher" attached to him almost as permanently as the name stitched across the back of his jersey.
But there is something different about Price this September, and it's not just the new pitch he taught himself over the winter. Suddenly the buzz has died down. The shine has diminished, however slightly. The David Price who debuted in the old Yankee Stadium was more a curiosity than a known commodity. This year the answers about what kind of pitcher Price is and more importantly, what kind of pitcher he will be, have started to emerge. And although they still suggest he will one day -- perhaps one day very soon -- be among the best pitchers in the game, it is clear that his transformation to superstar that so many expected this season will have to wait until next year, at the earliest. "Where he is now compared to where he was a year ago is exactly where you would expect a first-year player to be," Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey said. "If you take away the hype."
With Price, that has always been impossible. Hype has followed him since the Rays made him the No. 1 overall pick in the 2007 draft (and even before then, for those who followed him during his days as Vanderbilt's ace). It bubbled to the surface as he blazed through four levels of professional ball in his first season last year, and seemed to explode into a dazzling affirmation of his skill when he closed out the 2007 American League Championship Series by staring down the Red Sox in Game 7. His combined numbers last season on all levels -- 14-1 with a 2.31 ERA and more than a strikeout per inning -- suggested that he was not so much a star of the future as a star of the moment.
But Price didn't make the big club out of spring training -- "We just didn't think he was ready, in spite of what everybody had seen," said Rays manager Joe Maddon -- and didn't reach the majors until late May. In 19 starts for Tampa Bay, he is 7-7 with a 4.65 ERA and his K/BB rate is less than 2/1. For any other pitcher only two weeks past his 24th birthday, those numbers would be considered fairly impressive. For Price, they are cause for questions. Isn't this the David Price of whom a Rays scout once wrote three years ago, "He could be the face of our organization?"
"He's two different animals [from a year ago to now]," Maddon said. "The main difference is that he has adjusted to becoming a major league starter. He also has much better command of his fastball, and the ability to throw it for strikes. That may not sound like much to a lot of people, but that's huge."
Such subtle development may be pleasing to the Rays, but it's fair to say that Price's considerable skill, and his equally considerable impact on their playoff run last year, had many expecting a more obvious progression. The Rays have professed patience with Price, and with good reason. At 24 and still with several years to go before he reaches arbitration, much less free agency, he will remain a cost-effective yet highly skilled player on a team that needs a lot of both to compete in the daunting and pricey AL East. He is a serious investment, and they have gone to great lengths (non-Joba Rules division) to ensure that they get a serious return on that investment. They didn't call him up until mid-September last year, even as they fought to hold off the Red Sox in the AL East. They used him almost exclusively out of the bullpen after his arrival, and when he was deemed unready for the majors this spring, they didn't hesitate to ship him back to the minors and keep him on a strict 90-pitch limit.
The restraint was admirable. Maddon still laments his team's poor April -- they went 9-14 and were stranded 5 1/2 games out of first -- and cites it as a large part of the reason why the defending AL champions are on the verge of playoff elimination. "We never got hot enough to put April in our rearview mirror," he said Tuesday. Indeed, the Rays have never been closer than four games behind since. Could Price have helped keep the Rays in striking distance in a division where a deficit of only a few games can take months to overcome? Perhaps, but the very fact that they elected not to rush him even as their season collapsed suggests that it is the future that they are more concerned with than the present.
The Rays have closely monitored Price's innings for the year, and want him to go no higher than 20 percent beyond where he was a year ago, which would put him around 155 innings this season. Having pitched 136 innings already, he is well within range of that target. "I didn't know how many I had last year and I don't know how many I have this year," stated Price, who says the Rays have yet to inform him of their future plans for him. "They haven't said anything to me to be honest, and I haven't asked."
The Rays say their plan is to continue building him at 20 percent increments until he can face the rigors of a full 230-or-so inning season, which they hope includes pitching in the postseason. As the sport becomes more and more careful with the arms of young pitchers, how the Rays handle Price will be perhaps the most interesting test case in the game because of how important he is to their staff and to their future plans. As Hickey noted, "What's new [in baseball] is that now there are actual numbers out there, like the 20-inning increase, as guidelines. We were aware of it earlier, but we may not have taken it so far. We were never that meticulous about it. We're starting to get some good guidelines, not rules necessarily. You won't see us changing our philosophy. Us having younger pitchers in general, we have to take really good care of our inventory."
Price already takes good care of himself and has made a positive impression on those around him that goes beyond his statistics. Fellow pitchers marvel at a work ethic that has him make daily trips to the gym, and Hickey praises his "aptitude" and willingness to not simply rely on his ability to "out-stuff people." Maddon salutes his young pitcher's maturity. "He's so accountable, and such a good self-evaluator," says Maddon. "Even when he's had his ears pinned back, he has not cried one bit." Case in point: After holding the red-hot Yankees to two runs and three hits in six innings for a no-decision that Maddon deemed among his best outings of the year, Price shrugged his shoulders and said, "He's probably just saying that because it's the Yankees. I cost myself 15 or 20 extra pitches tonight and that's an entire extra inning."
After finishing his successful debut season, Price was asked to develop a third pitch to complement his high-90s fastball and darting slider, which he says is not as good now as it was a year ago. He got some advice on how to throw a changeup from the other Rays pitchers and spent the offseason developing it. By the time he arrived in spring training, "He came in with a major league average changeup," according to Hickey. "When he throws it right it has tremendous sink, almost like a split-finger fastball."
Though Price doesn't throw it frequently -- he used it just once in his 105-pitch outing against the Yankees on Tuesday -- he has shown so much potential with it that his catcher, Dioner Navarro, now compares Price's repertoire favorably with that of Yankees ace CC Sabathia. "They have the same stuff," he says. "I think he'll use [the changeup] more like CC. In the long run, that will be a pitch that can really help us."
What's said of the pitch could be said of the pitcher, too, giving the Rays hope that with further patience and development, their Price will be all right.