How the Blue Jays Changed David Price’s Cutter
Quick little rant to start this off: even with 3-D pitch data, analyzing pitchers is really hard. And your average stathead is really bad at it. The problem is that much more than hitters, pitching results have to be taken in context and results are based on a lot of luck and just as many moving and interrelated parts.
When a batter is 0-for-20 on inside fastballs or chasing breaking pitches in the dirt, you have come to some pretty reasonable conclusions immediately. Bat speed, not identifying pitches, etc. But when a pitcher’s fastballs start getting mashed, you have to start unpacking the whole chess match that is pitching to have any real idea why. Are they moving the same? Catching too much of the plate? Is the pitcher being too predictable or tipping his pitches? Throwing get-me-overs early, or nibbling until he has to groove one later on? Or is it something completely different, like a loss of similar-looking offspeed stuff or overall command so that batters are able to look for that one pitch or location? Combine these sorts of questions with the huge variation in pitcher stuff from one game to the next and you usually end up with a bunch of plausible explanations and no clear picture. And yet…”BATTING AVERAGE VS FASTBALLS” (or even something supposedly SABR like “Miss%”) graphs are everywhere…look at those numbers go up! That guy should stop throwing fastballs! Or throw better ones! Or something!
Anyway…my thinking these days is you may as well just point at the smoking gun, the one undeniably eye-popping thing that pops out as different at the same time that a pitcher is going wrong, and we can all draw our own plausible narratives for what it means — because without first-hand information, who really knows. Which brings me to David Price, and the search for an explanation other than the “DUDE HAS NO CLUTCH” or “IT WAS ALL THAT ONE POPUP BROKE HIS BRAIN DAMN YOU GOINS” nonsense we’ll be hearing for months no matter how the postseason turns out.
Cue the context: in his maturity, Price has started throwing his Changeup more and more, and his Curveball less and less, and as a result has morphed from a more typical southpaw into a righty killer. But it’s not just an Estradaesque Change — Price also plays a delicious little game on the outside edge of the zone with his sinker, straight fastball and cut-fastball.
See, most power lefties use their cutters like Jon Lester — in on the hands exclusively:
***DISCLAIMER*** My pitch f/x database is not current so from here on in, I’m ripping from www.brooksbaseball.net. You should go there and mess around with this stuff on your own, thus rendering me obsolete. These strike zone heat maps are from the catcher’s perspective.
It’s a nasty pitch, and a great little plan B. Either it’s a ball inside and the batter misses it like a back-foot slider, or else it’s an inside cutter slicing across the plate that they make terrible, sawed-off contact against. But Price hasn’t worked like that for some time. Here are his cutters to right-handed batters from the start of 2014 up to the point where the Jays acquired him.
He sometimes comes down and in, but much prefers to “back-door” right-handed batters with his cutter, which makes great sense considering his repertoire and fastball command. With two strikes, a batter might very well see a 4-seam pinpoint-command-type fastball on the outer edge, a 2-seamer sinking and moving away, or a cutter that starts outside and darts back over at the last minute. Got all that in your head? Well, that’s probably why you bit early and chased the changeup…It’s interesting watching Price on a start-to-start basis; I was expecting a lot more heat and devastating movement and saw a lot more guys swinging at full-count 2-seamers half a foot off the plate or taking cutters that were clearly strikes than I expected (for this reason).
But the thing is…after a month of transition, the Jays completely turned his cutter usage inside-out. Here he is in September, throwing it much like Lester. There are still a handful on the outer third, but it’s now usually inside. And this is not a small sample size or matter of the batters he faced — I mean, double the numbers you see down and in for this month and you’ve got at the number of cutters Price threw there for almost two seasons leading up to this September.
By his last (terrible) start against the Rays Price simply was no longer an back-door cutter thrower.
In addition to the change in strategy, you also have to wonder about the strain on Price’s arm. The cutter has a bad reputation for arm health, and here’s how throwing it to both sides of the plate increased the load:
That’s since 2013, and keep in mind the last three data points are playoffs — the Jays ramped up his cutter usage to an unprecedented 40% of his pitches towards the end of the year. Brooks is also missing data for one start against the Braves in which Price threw 33% cutters, which makes the late season cutterfest look even more intense.
And, although the trend had already started when they acquired him, these cutters were hard, 91-92 mph ones in on the hands and not the back-door 88-89 variety he had been throwing.
So now we have see a very different Price in the postseason…in addition to all the ‘lack of command’, one of his main weapons (and you might even say a key part of his established strategy against RHB) was no longer present. The anti-clutch postseason David Price no longer throws a precision back-door cutter to RHB, he throws one in on the hands or floats it over the middle:
Interestingly, in his last game against KC, Price threw 11 cutters all game and then 6 in the final disastrous frame. Seems like a coincidence, though (unless we’re going to really reach for the idea that overthrowing it caused him to lose his command of his ‘feel’ pitches) as his dominance in the game was due to low changeups and impeccable fastball command, and they got their hits off of low and away changeups to LHB (which he never throws intentionally) and fastballs that caught too much of the plate.
Anyway, the burning questions for me here are:
1) The Jays completely changed one of Price’s weapons down the stretch. Did they tinker with and ultimately mess up Cy Young stuff out of fear of the lefty-heavy Yankees lineup?
2) The Jays ran their rental pitcher cutter-hard down the stretch. Is some sort of dead arm why they gave him an unusual 11-game break at the end, and why he was not saved for game 5 of the ALDS?
3) Will Price shed his nice-guy attitude, shake off a bunch of pitches, and throw his normal game if the Jays need him again after the embarrassing and free-agent-cash-destroying debacle that has been his postseason so far???