Ace Analysis, Sox Style: Price and Wright

AceAnalysis Logo1The goal of the Ace Analysis Series will be to analyze pitchers whose most recent performance has not met expectations and try to determine whether the results are due to skill change, or simply a run of good/bad luck. I will analyze both struggling aces and unheralded players showing signs of a breakout. As always, I do take requests, so if there is a specific player you would like me to take a look at, please let me know in the comment section.

This week’s feature will examine one struggling ace and a surging breakout. Enjoy!

David Price, Boston Red Sox

2016
IP Wins K’s ERA WHIP
41.1 4 53 6.75 1.38

David Price is off to a frustratingly poor start. Is father time starting to catch up with a 30-year-old ace who has logged over 1500 career innings counting postseason? Or is the rocky start simply providing fantasy owners with a buy low window?

The Arsenal

Price has two fastballs: a four-seamer and a two-seamer that he uses a little more than 50% of the time. Both have been fantastic pitches for Price throughout his career. Although neither pitch generates an elite swinging strike rate, he has always been able to get a lot of called 3rd strikes with his fastball because he does such a good job keeping hitters off-balance and attacking on 2 strike counts. Opposing batters have had more success than normal against both pitches so far this season. Price’s fastball velocity is down from 94 to 92, so there is some cause for concern here.

Price has three offspeed pitches that have also been very positive offerings for him throughout his career. His most commonly used of the three is his changeup (23.4% usage rate). The changeup is his best strikeout pitch. and as mentioned before, he does such a good job keeping hitters off-balance that it compliments his fastball beautifully. This season, hitters are swinging and missing at astronomical rates against the change (27.2% swinging strike rate), but when they have made contact they have hit it pretty hard.

Price’s cutter is his next most frequently used pitch at just under 20%. He gets about a league average swinging strike rate on the pitch, but he is often able freeze batters and use the cutter to get called 3rd strikes.

Lastly, Price mixes in an occasional knuckle curve that regularly arrives at less than 80 MPH. He does not use the pitch often enough to warrant extensive analysis, but like all of Price’s weapons, it is a pretty good pitch.

Ks and BBs

Price has always posted strong K numbers, but this year he is off the charts. He is striking out 29% of the batters he has faced for a K/9 of 11.54. His current strikeout rate would easily be a career high. In fact, Price was never even able to reach a 29% K rate in the minors. Driven by his changeup, Price’s early K spike is validated by a 14.1% swinging strike rate and a remarkably low 72.9% zone contact rate for opposing hitters.

Price’s amazing feel and ability to mix in his off speed pitches will likely allow him to continue posting better than a strikeout an inning despite the diminished velocity. Still, fantasy owners should expect some regression in this category. Price is very good, but he will not be able to sustain a 14% swinging strike rate all season. Owners should expect that number to come down. His K rate will likely end up somewhere between 24% and 26%.

Since 2012, David Price has been among the best in the majors at limiting walks. His walk rate was under 4% for two straight seasons before spiking to 5.3% in 2015. While most pitchers would be doing backflips if they had his current 6.6% walk rate, that number is much higher than what we are used to seeing for Price.

Price’s F-Strike% is a little lower than it has been for the last few years and his O-swing percentage is also down significantly. I am really not concerned with that. What does concern me is the velocity drop. If Price continues to get hit hard, he may not be able to attack the strike zone as aggressively as he has in the past. That could certainly lead to a higher walk rate than we normally see from Price.

Moving forward, I expect to see a BB rate near 6% and a K/BB ratio right around 4.0. He should continue to be very good in this area, but perhaps not the dominant force he has been the past two seasons.

Batted Ball Data

Over the course of Price’s career, he has had a very average batted ball profile and a slightly better than average BABIP against of .288. This year, he has an ERA of 6.75, yet all of his major ERA indicators are under 3.00. He has allowed a BABIP of .373 and has a strand rate of just 54.2%. These numbers are not simply a product of bad luck, however. Price has allowed a 29.1% LD rate and a hard contact rate of 41.2%. Those rates are ridiculously high! To put the hard contact rate into perspective, Miguel Cabrera has a career hard contact rate of 39%. Basically, in 2016 Price’s hard contact rate has been a little bit higher than what an average pitcher would allow to Miguel Cabrera. Not good.

Price has never been great at limiting home runs, but they have never really been a problem either. He has allowed 4 home runs through his first seven starts and his current HR/9 is right in line with career averages. Home runs have not really been the issue, but 3 of his 4 home runs allowed have occurred with runners on base.

I am a little torn here as far as what to make of this. First off, the current BABIP and hard contact rates are unsustainable for anybody, let alone a pitcher like Price who is so capable of missing bats and keeping hitters off-balance. The velocity drop could be making Price more hittable, however. While I don’t think it is wise to assume Price will return to his normal career levels, lots of positive regression is bound to happen here.

Final Conclusions

David Price is probably going to be alright and he makes a solid buy low candidate. Be careful though! The velocity drop and potential for increased hard contact moving forward simultaneously lower Price’s ceiling and floor. Here are my projections moving forward:

  • IP: 175
  • ERA: 3.50
  • WHIP: 1.18
  • Ks: 180
  • Wins: 12

I think Price is a solid SP2, but not quite a fantasy ace. Deal accordingly!



Steven Wright, Boston Red Sox

2016
IP Wins K’s ERA WHIP
32.1 2 31 1.67 1.14
Owned in 43% of Y! Leagues

Steven Wright has spent time in the majors each of the last 4 seasons, but has been a bullpen arm for much of that time. He was given two stints as a starter with the Sox in 2015, accumulating 9 starts over that time. Wright had some success last August, so his early season breakout is not completely out of the blue, but nobody was expecting his current level of performance. What should the expectations be moving forward?

The Arsenal

Wright is a classic knuckleballer. He throws the pitch about 87.5% of the time with an average velocity of 73.9 MPH. When compared to other knuckleball pitchers, that is a medium velocity. For comparison sake, Dickey throws his knuckler at about 76 MPH and Wakefield threw his in the upper 60s. Regardless of the velocity, the concept is the same. A good knuckleball is difficult to hit because it has very little spin, which makes it difficult for the hitter to predict which way it will break.

In addition to the knuckler, Wright has a low 80s four-seam fastball. It is not a particularly good pitch, but it has been surprisingly effective because he has been able to catch hitters off guard with it.

Ks and BBs

The two keys for success for any knuckleball pitcher are the ability to get swings and misses in the strike zone and the ability to consistently find the strike zone. This section is probably the most important in determining whether Wright’s success can continue.

Steven Wright is currently striking out 23% of the batters he has faced for a K/9 of 8.63. Last season, he only struck out 16.9% for a K/9 of 6.44. He had one very strong major league stint with the Sox in 2014 where he struck out better than a batter per inning, but that was just a 21 inning sample in which he made 1 start and 5 relief appearances. Other than that, you would have to go back to his minor league debut in 2007 A-Ball to find a K rate above 21.1%. Most of his minor league K percentages are in the high teens. History is not on his side.

What is on Wright’s side is the fact that hitters are failing to make contact on many of Wright’s pitches in the zone (78.2% overall z-contact rate, 74.7% z-contact rate on the knuckleball in 2016). These numbers are career bests, but Wright has always been able to generate swings and misses on his knuckler. Overall, Wright has a swinging strike rate of 11.8% so far this year. While that number is well above his career average, it also indicates that the K spike may be based on skill improvement. For reference, his swinging strike rate in 2014 was just 9.8%.
It is difficult to say for sure if the K spike is real.

The downside to Wright is that he has really struggled with walks in the past. He has occasionally posted walk rates over 10% in the minors, so while his current 11.1% walk rate this year looks high compared to his major league results, it really is not too far out of character for Wright.

He is doing a good job pitching in the zone this season (48.9%) so owners should be optimistic that his walk rate will improve moving forward. Still, it is difficult to get too excited about his 2.07 K/BB (2.09 career) rate this season. The walk rate may drop, but the Ks are likely to come down also.

Batted Ball Data

Wright has a pretty ordinary batted ball profile with a career line drive rate of 17.8%, a ground ball rate of 45% and a career fly ball rate of 37.2%. Interestingly, this season he has allowed more line drives than normal (23.2%), but his hard contact rate of 30.2% is right in line with career averages. He has been very stingy with a low BABIP allowed over the last 2 seasons (.252 and .247 respectively), but that has not been true for his entire career. He often struggled with above average BABIP numbers in the minors and during his first two big league stints. The bottom line here is that there is nothing to suggest that his low BABIP from the past two seasons is anything more than a run of good fortune.

Wright is normally a pretty average pitcher when it comes to suppressing home runs. His career HR/FB rate is right at 10% and he generally trended near league average HR rates in the minors. So far this year, he has allowed only 1 HR. Given that he pitches half his games in Fenway Park, it would be a wise bet to say this number will rise substantially in the near future.

In summary, I think Wright’s 4.17 xFIP is a much closer approximation to his pitching talent than his current ERA.

Knuckleball Generalizations

Another common trait for knuckleball pitchers is that they either have it, or they don’t. Wright has not had any bad outings so far in 2016. He has posted quality starts in all 5 of his starts and amassed healthy K totals in each. It is possible that his numbers are inflated because he has simply had his good stuff in all 5 outings this season. It is also possible that he has made legitimate improvement and we could be on the verge of witnessing a career season. I am not ready to make a definitive call here, but I am leaning to the side of fluke.

Role with Club

Steven Wright is technically listed 6th on the Red Sox SP depth chart. Price, Buchholz and Porcello are ahead of him to stay. Both Eduardo Rodriguez and Joe Kelly are nearing returns from the DL. Rodriguez almost certainly slots in as the 4th starter. Wright’s best chance of keeping his rotation spot is for him to continue to outpitch Joe Kelly. Keep in mind though, Kelly has experience on his side. If Wright keeps doing what he is doing, it will be nearly impossible for Kelly to overtake him. A couple rocky starts could tip the scales in the other direction, however. Owners need to be aware that Wright could wind up back in the bullpen at some point.

Final Conclusions

I do think regression will strike Wright pretty hard in the coming weeks. Here is my projection for the rest of the season:

  • IP: 120
  • ERA: 4.00
  • WHIP: 1.30
  • Ks: 100
  • Wins: 7

That being said, I also think Wright needs to be owned in more leagues. His K spike could be the result of legitimate improvement. At 31, Wright is still refining his craft. If he is able to sustain the K rate and reduce the BB rate, he could easily be an above average mixed league starting pitcher. The possible upside makes Wright worth the roster spot, just don’t overpay to acquire him.

 

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Tommy Landseadel
Tommy is also known as tlance on the CBS and Sports Hoopla message boards. He has been playing fantasy baseball for 16 years in many different format types and looks forward to helping you with your fantasy baseball questions! You can now follow me on Twitter @tlandseadel
Tommy Landseadel

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