Why is David Price so awesome now?

What have they figured out? - USA TODAY Sports

And IS David Price so awesome now?

I once had a poly-sci professor who told of a time when he was in college and his class was presented with a choice of ten questions on which to write an essay. One of the ten was "Did the communists win the Chinese Civil War?" Every student chose that, since the answer is simple. Yes. The communists ended up with China, the nationalists were left with the small island of Taiwan. QED. Turns out it was supposed to have said "WHY did the communists win the Chinese Civil War?"

David Price is presenting us with a similar set of questions at the moment, but in baseball they're a bit more intertwined. If we can't answer the question of why he's pitching so well, then our answer to the question about whether or not he's really this good should be based on regression. And if we base the answer on regression alone, Rays fans will be disappointed.

Price has been fun to watch, recently. Since coming back from the disabled list he has three complete games and two strong seven inning performances. He's being efficient, and on the face of things he's being dominant. He has a 1.76 ERA. In four of the five games he's been back, he's struck out less than seven batters per nine innings, and so people are are attributing the success to his lack of strikeouts. They see him going deep into games and applaud him for "pitching to contact."

Because I'm a little troll who was raised in the damp confines of my mother's basement, I see Price's .228 BABIP in July and I shudder at the thought of the coming regression. I dislike the phrase "pitch to contact" when used as a reason for success the way a vampire dislikes crucifixes made of garlic. Let's get some facts straight.

K/9 BB/9
Pre-DL 7.99 2.30
Post-DL 5.93 0.22

That comes out to a 4.02 FIP and a 3.51 xFIP from before the DL, and a 3.38 FIP and a 3.43 xFIP after.

So before we start going down the rabbit hole about how Price proves that DIPS is flawed, and that it's not just about strikeouts, DIPS based metrics actually think that Price has been better while striking out fewer. That's because DIPS isn't just about strikeouts, it's about strikeouts AND walks.

There's a third true outcome of course too, and that ever-pesky BABIP.

Pre-DL 15.7% .345
Post-DL 10.4% .228

When you pound the zone, the thinking is that you'll get hit harder. This happened in the Toronto game, when Price gave up three home runs in seven innings (27.3% HR/FB), but it hasn't happened in the other games. Why not?

  1. Well, Price has great stuff. But he's always had great stuff, and he's never pounded the zone this much before for an extended stretch without being hit hard.
  2. Price has improved his command within the zone and his sequencing. Very possible. Hopefully sustainable.
  3. Price is a great pitcher, and sometimes great pitchers have runs of five games where they pitch like this. It doesn't always last. Maybe he's raised his true talent level, but five games is too small of a sample size to draw strong conclusions from the stats. Even if he has raised his true talent level, can he hold it here? Even Cy Young award winners are human. Fluctuations happen.
The last statistic I want to draw your attention to is his infield popup rate. Before going on the DL this year it was 7.9%. Afterward it's been 22.9%. His career rate is 10%. Now infield fly balls are great, and there's evidence that unusual rates are sustainable. If David Price has just now figured out how to pop people up, that would be a true improvement, but as I've said before, five games.

David Price isn't succeeding because he's stopped striking batters out. He's succeeding because he's stopped walking batters almost entirely, while at the same time getting hit less hard, and popping more people up. I don't yet know the answer to how he's doing it, or whether he can keep it up, but to honestly answer question #2 with anything better than an unhappy "no" and a nod toward regression, we really need to first get an accurate handle on question #1.

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