Who is David Price?

WARNING: This post is humorously too long.

He's exactly as tall as Nikola Tesla, Penn Jillette, and Dennis Rodman, but I'm not sure if he's a mad innovator, a magician, or a freak. He shares a home state with Isaac Hayes, Davy Crocket, and Morgan Freeman, but I'm not sure if he's just plain sexy, a mythified pioneer, or a guy who just makes a living pretending to be God.

I don't know what kind of player Price will be. None of us do. But we know what he has done already, which helps us predict what he may become. A lot of Rays fans developed full crushes on the young David Price. And rightfully so! In his first full season with the club, Price started in the All-Star Game and earned legitimate Cy Young consideration.

But -- whether it was my misfortunate to miss his pitching gems or it was my inability to overlook his high LOB% and xFIP -- I could not shake my concerns. I secretly feared everyone's great expectations were increasingly unfounded.

So, this offseason, I committed myself to ask this question and ask it with an open mind:

Who is David Price?

In his young career, Price has pitched 351 innings, sporting a 3.31 ERA and a 3.85 FIP. Over half of these numbers come from Price's quality 2010 season in which he pitched over 200 innings:

Stat   2010
ERA    2.72
FIP    3.42
xFIP   3.99
tERA   3.27
tRA    3.64
tRAr   4.45

What troubles me most: Price's xFIP and tRAr (regressed tRA, courtesy of StatCorner) tell us Price is just normal. These are my great stumbling blocks. Both xFIP and tRAr have relatively strong correlations with future perform, forecasting more 2009-ish seasons for Price. On top of these things, Price had a 78% Left on Base Percentage in 2010 -- implying he was considerably lucky.

The Bill James Comparison
Billl James has already released his 2011 projections, which have Price going over 200 innings again, sporting a 3.94 FIP and 3.57 ERA. That's pretty good, but it also suggests that Price's true talent level resembles his 2010 xFIP more than his ERA.

On Baseball-Reference, we can find Bill James's similarity scores. These scores compare a variety of elements -- including wins, losses, starts, innings, ERA, walks, strikeouts, etc. -- to score players' similarities. It is an older metric, but there is still some value behind it. For instance, by looking at wins and losses, we are likely to find pitchers on excellent teams (like Price) -- which is good, because I really only care about the future of David Price in a Rays uni.

Either way, the similarity scores are an imperfect tool, but nifty for comparisons nonetheless. Looking at similarity scores through their 24th year of age, we get this crop careers (sorted according to their similarities to Price; the most similar on the left, the least on the right):

Bjamescompsfip_medium

Looking at Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP), we find a wonderful slew of talent in this group -- which includes some great names like Tim Lincecum, Mike Mussina, and Schoolboy Rowe. Only Shawn Estes has a career FIP above 4.05, but -- looking at contextualized ERA (that is ERA+) -- we see this group was, on average, above average:

Bjamescompsera_medium

The average ERA+ of this group was 109+, or 9% better than league average. That's nice -- not the best, just nice.

But how long did these pitchers last? Were they able to turn their quality young years into long and many seasons?

Bjamescompsip_medium

In the IP chart, only Price and Lincecum are still active. Clearly, some of these fellows had good, long careers. Even the brilliantly-named Schoolboy Rowe had about 10 seasons of 200 innings -- that's a lot of production! Of the retired group, the average IP was close to 2000, which is a really respectable number.

Let's compare how their first years compared to their eventual career numbers:

Bjamescompsscatter_medium

The only player to stay close to his early production (the two dots on the far right) is Tim Lincecum -- who is still in the his early production. Nonetheless, only three pitchers slipped beneath league average.

The highest comparison score (974) belonged to the almost stellar Roger Moret, whose career ended in bizarre fashion -- which is troubling.

The Best Case Scenario Comparison
Another way I approached this analysis was to ask myself: "What pitcher is similar to Price and whom I'd want him to turn into?" In other words, what's the best case scenario for David Price?

This is a useful exercise whenever we think someone is not that good. For instance, if we say Reid Brignac is the worst hitting shortstop evah, maybe we can compare him to a young Derek Jeter and find some reasons to hope in the aging curve.

Well, I did this with David Price and found this most delightful comparison:

Bestcasescenera_medium

These two pitchers (one of them being David) had some up and down first seasons.

Bestcasescenfip_medium

Their FIPs were okay. Pitcher 1 had a rough 3rd year, according to FIP, but was otherwise slightly better than Pitcher 2.

Bestcasescenip_medium

They pitcher nearly identical amounts of innings.

Bestcasescenlob_medium

And they were nearly identically lucky and unlucky.

So who is it? Pitcher 2 is David Price, naturally, but Pitcher 1 is a young Randy Johnson. Both are tall, hard-throwing lefties, and both had really, eerily similar starts to their careers. Let's hope Price's ends in similar fashion (3.19 FIP, career WAR somewhere between 90-100, and 5 Cy Youngs).

The Young Studs Comparison
My final method of comparison was to query for players with similar, hot starts to their careers. So, I searched for:

  • Careers from between 1945-2010.
  • Players who were hot between the ages of 10-24...
  • Pitching in their 1st to 3rd season...
  • With an ERA+ of 120 or higher...
  • Having pitched at least 300 innings...
  • With 90% of those being starts.

This produced 35 players and David Price himself. This included a variety of players -- from Matt Cain and Mark Prior to Tom Seaver and Roger Clemens. I wanted to compare two valuable -- the components of a quality career:

  1. FIP - Or pitching dominance.
  2. Durability - As measured by IP per season.

I chose to divide IP by seasons because healthy pitchers tend to pitch more innings. The most durable pitchers will approach 200 innings per year. Since we constrained the players to only those who started 90% of their games, we avoid the risk of capturing John Smoltz players, pitcher who excelled at started, but moved to the bullpen. Their innings decreased, but their value and performance may not have.

Another possible constraint is that those who pitched poorly after their hot start may have eventually split time between AAA and the majors. That is selection bias, but I'm not sure exactly how it would affect the results.

This is an admittedly imperfect model of assessing health, but it's the best way I could think to do it, given that a number of these careers are still active.

As we might suspect, those who pitched many seasons proved generally more durable:

Youngstudsdurability_medium

When we compare this durability element to their career FIPs, we find pretty much what we might expect, those who stayed healthy pitched well, and those who pitched well stayed healthy:

Youngstudssuccess_medium

The regression line indicates those who were able to keep their FIP low were able to keep their innings high -- or conversely, those who kept their innings high, kept their FIP low. Tragically, it can go both ways: Some of these players lost innings due to health, other because of poor performance (except Barry Zito, the upper right data point).

In general, though, these players did well. They started hot, and then over half of them went on to pitch above 150 innings per year, and 80% of them went on to pitch below a 4.00 FIP.

Conclusion
So, who is David Price? Is he the next Randy Johnson? Is he Roger Moret -- a footnote in history? Is he everything we hope he is? Or is he destined for mediocrity and disappointment? Thankfully we don't know -- and that's the fun of it!

Frankly, most of these comparisons are very favorable. It's hard not to notice how many big names come up when we look for comparisons, but at the same time, we encountered a lot of forgettable careers. Here's what it comes down to, in my humble opinion:

If Price escapes significant injury, he will be at least above average, at most phenomenal. If Price turns into Mike Mussina 2.0, I'd be thrilled. Mike averaged near 200 innings per season and sported an above average 3.50ish career FIP. If Price turns into Johnson, then I'll get a tatt of his face on my chest.

But the future remains unwritten, so anything can happen. Price may melt away into forgetfulness, or he may re-invent the game, burn through the record books, and make scouts start looking for "the next David Price."

Who is David Price?

Why, he's David Price. And he decides what that means.

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