On May 15, David Price was pulled from his ninth start after only 2.1 IP, having allowed four earned runs on five hits and a walk. It was only the second time in his career he had failed to make it through three innings pitched, with the previous outing occurring way back on July 4, 2009 ... or the eighth start of his still-young Major League career. The next day, Price hit the disabled list with a strained triceps injury in his pitching arm - he would remain there for forty-seven days, missing forty-four games along the way. His numbers at the time were rather disconcerting (at least when taken at face value) - 9 GS, 55 IP, 65 H, 14 BB, 49 K, 8 HR, 5.24 ERA, 4.02 FIP. To some, this was merely a fluky stretch featuring a healthy dose of bad luck. Price's unsightly ERA was, after all, well above his FIP, and his walk and strikeout rates were right in-line with his career norms. Sure - his FIP was a far cry from the previous few years, and nearly a run higher than the 3.05 figure posted in his Cy Young winning 2012 ... but we are only talking about a sample size of nine starts. To others, however, a stark decline in velocity combined with an increase in hittability served as a cause for concern with a pitcher that had thrown 663.1 IP over the previous three seasons (including the playoffs). And then Price hit the disabled list, and many feared the worst.
What happened next is something out of the Greg Maddux playbook.
David Price returned from the disabled list on July 2, and methodically picked apart the Houston Astros, requiring only 70 pitches to get through 7 IP, striking out ten along the way. Of course, these are the Astros we're talking about, so it may well have been another bit of rehab before returning to the bigs. And then Price held the White Sox to eight baserunners while going the distance on July 7, requiring 98 pitches to do so. On July 12 Price went the distance once more, this time in a rematch against the hapless Astros, tossing all of 87 pitches.
Are you sensing a pattern here? In short, in the nine starts following his stint on the disabled list, Price has average a hair under 8 IP per start, requiring an average of just over 95 pitches per outing. He has thrown no fewer than 7 IP in any one start, and he has needed over a hundred pitches only twice during this remarkable stretch.
We all know that Price is one of the best pitchers in baseball, to be sure, so there isn't really anything surprising about a nine start stretch of dominance ... right? Perhaps. And then you dig a bit deeper in his numbers, and realize that something special is happening: 9 GS, 71.1 IP, 50 H, 3 BB, 51 K, 6 HR, 1.77 ERA, 2.87 FIP.
Or, phrased differently, Price is walking 0.4 batters per nine innings over the last nine starts. He has struck out seventeen batters for every one he has walked. And he's allowing all of 0.74 baserunners per inning. Yes, this stretch has included three starts against the borderline impotent Astros and White Sox - but it has also included two starts against the Red Sox (both in Fenway), a start against the Dodgers, and a start against a healthy Blue Jays squad (which sounds like an oxymoron).
We have seen a couple of other walk retardant stretches of dominance this season, in Messrs Adam Wainwright and Bartolo Colon. In Wainwright's first nine starts, he only walked five batters (0.7 BB/9) in 64.2 IP, striking out 63. Impressive? Absolutely? On Price's level? Not quite - particularly when you factor in the competition, with Wainwright facing only two above-average offenses in that stretch. Colon also walked only 4 batters in his first nine starts (0.7 BB/9), but he did not go as deep into his starts (54.1 IP), nor did he strike out nearly as many batters (30 K, 5.0 K/9). Colon may have, however, faced the toughest competition - two starts against the Rangers, one against Red Sox, one against the Tigers, and another against the Indians. This is essentially who Colon is now, following his reemergence with the Yankees - a guy that pounds the strike zone and relies on the defense and pitcher-friendly ballpark behind him (with mostly solid results).
What does this all mean? Can we really take anything away from nine starts? To be blunt, I am not sure. What I do know is that David Price will only be 28 next week, and his walk rates have dropped from good to great to elite over his four-plus seasons as a starting pitcher. His strikeouts are down somewhat, which may be a bit disconcerting - but he is still striking out an average-ish number of batters, and that number may well go up as his velocity continues to trend upward.
And if Price can regain some of his strikeouts without sacrificing his newfound command and control, we may well be looking at not only the most important player in the race for the American League East, but the best pitcher in the American League. Lord only knows how many Yankees and other assorted fans are counting the days until David Price hits the free agent market.
(It's something like 803 days, depending on when the 2015 World Series wraps up ... not that I'm counting.)