Wednesday, August 13, 2008

David Price's AAA Debut

Update: See my review of Price's third AAA start (and his second in Durham), follow this link.

Certainly the most surprising story in baseball this season has been the emergence of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays to the top of the American League East. To be honest, I had a good feeling the Rays would be a force, because I have been watching their AAA Durham Bulls for a few years now. International League champions in 2002 and 2003, and runners-up in 2007, the Bulls are stacked with talent from the Rays' impressive draft classes of recent years. Personally I have seen players such as BJ Upton, Evan Longoria, Reid Brignac, and Justin Ruggiano show off their copious talent on the minor league stage.

None of these players has arguably had the hype of David Price, Tampa Bay's first overall pick in the 2007 amateur draft. The twenty-two year old southpaw dominated the Florida State league in his first professional action, posting a 1.82 ERA and striking out 37 in 34.2 innings (walking just 7). The Southern League (AA) posed no challenge for Price either, and in nine starts he struck out 55 men in 57 innings, walking 16 and with an equally sparkling 1.89 ERA. I first heard on the blog Bull City Rising that Price would make his first start for the Bulls on August 13 against the Norfolk Tides (Baltimore Orioles affiliate). I immediately picked up some tickets, and sat behind home plate for Price's AAA debut.

It was a chilly day for August in Durham, and light rain kept the tarp on the field until 30 minutes before gametime. The first place Bulls took the field with the sun poking through the rainclouds, and experienced major leaguer Tike Redman dug in for a battle. With Price popping the mitt of catcher John Jaso, Redman worked the count to 3-2 before fouling off three consecutive pitches. A sinking slider got Redman swinging on the ninth pitch. Price wasn't as accurate to second baseman Eider Torres, and on a 2-0 pitch Price left a fastball over the plate, which Torres nailed to deep center. Luis Terrerro was next, but Price bounced right back. After working the count to 2-2 on mostly fastballs, Price through an off-speed pitch which the righty Terrerro pulled foul a long way down the left field line. Price took a little something off the next pitch, and on a 90-mph cutter, Terrero went down swinging.

Oscar Salazar was next, and with Torres still dancing off second, Price attempted a couple backdoor sliders to the 30 year-old veteran (one was successful). The next pitch, a 1-2 fastball, broke Salazar's bat and the ball sqeaked past Chris Richard into right field. Jon Weber, playing right field, didn't get a good handle on the ball, but Torres probably would have scored anyway. Price was undoubtedly determined to end his first AAA inning on a high note. Up next was lefty Freddie Bynum and Price poured it on: he surrounded a 0-1 slider with three swinging strikes on fastballs: 96, 95, and 95 on the gun.

With the middle of the order out of the way, Price faced an easier task in the top of the second. Catcher Will Heintz grounded weakly to third on a 84 mph slider. Brandon Fahey was next, and the left-handed hitting third baseman saw three fastballs before looking foolish on an excellent slider, striking out swinging. Chris Roberson, a 28 year old journeyman, proved to be the biggest thorn in Price's side in this contest. His first at bat:

0-0 swinging strike
0-1 84 mph slider in the dirt
1-1 82 mph change pulled foul
1-2 96 mph fastball down and in, ball
2-2 91 mph fastball low, ball
3-2 inside pitch pulled foul
3-2 87 mph slider fouled straight back
3-2 93 mph fastball hit right back up the middle, single

The shortstop, Luis Hernandez saw three fastballs up and in; on the third Roberson took off for second, and Jaso gunned him down to end the second inning.

The Bulls managed to tie the game in the bottom of the second, on Jaso's RBI groundout/error. Price took the mound to face Hernandez again, and on the second pitch Hernandez sent one back up the middle for a single. Unfortunately the scoreboard radar gun was intermittent during this inning, so I was unable to get accurate readings for Price (although it usually picked up Jaso's 37 mph return throws nicely...). So it's unclear if Price was losing velocity as the wheels came off in the third. Redman knocked a 77 mph pitch to center for a single, which brought up Torres again. Price got Torres quickly to 0-2 before wasting two fastballs (89 and 90 mph) and getting a foul on a slider; Torres then knocked a bloop single to right-center field to load the bases.

Tererro barely dug in before nailing Price's first offering straight at third baseman Joel Guzman, who couldn't handle the liner and it flew into left field. Two runs scored, which brought up Salazar. After taking a fastball low, a 77 mph slurve was two-hopped into the hole between SS and 3B to reload the bases. A coaching visit preceded a showdown with Bynum. Following two high fastballs, Bynum fouled off a fastball, missed a slider, and fouled back another fastball. On the sixth pitch, an 86 mph slider, Bynum whiffed. Heintz liked his 1-1 pitch and lifted it to medium left field, where Johnny Gomes fired home to complete a 7-2 double play, beating Torres by 10 feet.

It was a feeble effort by the Bulls in the third, and Price took the mound for the fourth. Fahey made it five strikeouts in six lefty at bats by swinging at a slider in the dirt, bringing up Roberson again. Another long at bat followed:

0-0 Fastball high
1-0 Pulled foul
1-1 Fastball low
2-1 Fastball away, swung and missed
2-2 94 mph Fastball up and in
3-2 Slider fouled back
3-2 fastball, middle-outside grounded sharply to third base for an out

Hernandez hit the very next pitch, a fastball high and in, weakly to second base to end the inning. It was the 80th pitch of the night for Price, and his day was done. The final line: 4 IP 7 H 3 R, 0 BB, 6 K. Price seemed to have a few different speeds on his pitches: there were the mid-90s fastballs to Bynum in the first and Roberson in the second; there were low-90s fastballs mixed in as well. I learned later in the game that the popping-mitt sound wasn't so much Price as it was Jaso; there were equally loud strikes from the weaker-armed Chris Mason.

The most impressive thing to me was his total domination of left-handed hitters. Except for Redman's single in the second, he struck out five of the six left-handed batters that faced him (Redman once, Bynum twice, Fahey twice). The best pitch of the night was probably the slider that got Fahey in the second; following the mid-90s fastballs he looked really outclassed. Still, seven hits in four innings is never good (I am not sure why all three runs are earned considering Guzman was charged with an error in the third). There was only one out in the air (the double-play in the second), though there was also the leadoff double. I was also impressed with his poise in the long atbats versus Redman and Roberson, forcing the hitters to get at his best stuff. Still, Price needs to work a bit at getting right-handers, and some adjustment to AAA should be expected. Some better defense behind him couldn't hurt.

Price was relieved by Kirt Birkins, who immediately put the game out of reach by giving up four runs in the fifth. A number of boring innings followed until the Bulls made it interesting in the eighth inning. Tides reliever Bob McCrory was popping the now-functional radar gun with 94-96 mph fastballs, a 84 mph slider and a 77 mph curve. But he tired in the eighth and walked both Weber and Dan Johnson before he was lifted for Kameron McKoho. This tall righty threw almost entirely fastballs, and the Bulls were all over it. Chris Richard crushed his first pitch to right field, almost too hard, as Johnson was thrown out at second at what proved to be the crucial moment of the game.

In a moment of poetic turnabout, Guzman smacked the very next pitch at Fahey, who couldn't handle it, and weber scored. Two pitches later, Jaso crushed a double to right-center, bringing the game to 7-6. After a walk to Eliot Johnson, weak-hitting shorstop Ron Merril popped up to end the threat. The Bulls went down in order in the ninth, ending with Johnny Gomes swinging out of his shoes at a pitch eye-high.

Other notes: Immaculate inning favorite Chris Mason redeemed himself from his previous outing in my presence with three excellent innings. He is still barely touching 90 with his fastball, but he pitched around a couple of walks and kept the game close enough for the Bulls to make the final charge.... I've seen John Jaso in two games in the past week, and he's impressive both times. The 24-year old is seeing his first AAA action of his career and he always seems to hit the ball hard.... Johnny Gomes doesn't seem to want to be in AAA, he seems like he's trying to prove he doesn't belong with every swing.

If David Price is to pitch again in AAA, it will be on the road, likely in Louisville. If he pitches in Durham again, I'll try to get out there for another look at the highly hyped left-hander. There has been some discussion about whether to convert Price to a reliever to finish the season, the way the Yankees did with Joba Chamberlain last year. However, Price has now thrown just 96 innings this season, unlike Chamberlain who was approaching his limit. Any conversion has yet to begin, and would take a few weeks. It may be that if the Rays are looking to Price in the final month, it will be as a starter. At any rate, Price finally faced a struggle tonight, and it will be interesting follow see his next start, to see if he regains the dominance he had over A+ and AA.


Anonymous said...

Great report.

Have you been able to get a feel for whether Jaso is adequate behind the dish? Better or worse than Pete LaForest?

Matt said...

I had only started going to Bulls games in 2005, LaForest's last year, so I can't comment on that comparison. The biggest thing is definitely the offense, Jaso is much more capable at the plate than DiFelice or Gimenez.

Jaso made two perfect throws to second in last night's game, nailing Roberson but was a little late getting Torres later in the game. Both throws looked good, I just think Torres got a better jump. He received the ball very well on the throw home from Gomes, although the throw was so perfect there was no need to do anything but apply the tag.

I will try and pay more attention to Jaso's defense the next time I'm there. Thanks for your question!