Saturday, August 23, 2008

David Price, The Sequel

Ten days ago, Rays superprospect David Price made his Triple-A debut, and the Immaculate Inning was all over it. Sure, one may expect the first outing at any level for such a young pitcher to be jittery, but Price did strike out five in four innings. Five days later, Price made his second appearance against the Indianapolis Indians, the Pirates' AAA squad, a team that sits in the middle of the pack in offense in the International League. However, they do have a few blue chip prospects in Andrew McCutchen, Steven Pearce, and Brian Bixler. Price lasted longer in his second outing (he finished five) but was wild, walking four hitters in the no-decision. This weekend, the same teams faced off again, but this time the Durham Bulls were hosting the Indians. The Immaculate Inning returned, and this time I didn't forget my camera...

The weather was absolutely perfect for baseball-- low 80s, party cloudy, and when I arrived I walked down the third baseline towards Durham's bullpen, where I snapped a few pics of Price warming up. Unlike the previous game, which was on a cold Wednesday night, this game was going to be packed, and fans were already filling the lawn in right-center field (a sure sign of a near sell-out). As I walked towards the home plate area, I heard someone ask an usher where Standing Room Only folks were allowed to stand, and it was certain that Price was going to pitch in front of a packed crowd.

Following a lovely National Anthem (performed by a Durham church choir), Price took the mound and popped the mitt of catcher Mike DiFelice with a 94 mph fastball, called a strike on the outside corner. Price would hit 95 mph later in the at bat but ultimately surrendered a single up the middle against the only lefty in the Indy lineup, Chris Duffy. One thing that was striking about Price in this outing was how quickly he was working; I could barely record my notes about the previous pitch before he was in his windup again. With Duffy leading off first, Price threw a cutter that got too much of a plate and McCutchen crushed it to centerfield, but Fernando Perez tracked it down. Price really mixed up the pitches against Pearce, throwing fastballs away and changes down and in; however none of them really fooled Pearce, earning a walk. Price got a bit lucky after his first pitch to Ronny Paulino skipped away from DiFelice, but the crafty catcher pounced on it and threw out Duffy trying to take third. Paulino then saw three straight fastball strikes and the inning was over.

In the second inning, Price took the mound with a 1-0 lead, on the strength of a Nathan Haynes homer in the bottom of the first. However, it didn't take long for the lead to evaporate. Luis Cruz, a 24-year old shortstop with a lifetime minor league slugging percentage of .362 showed a lot of power in this game, starting with a hanging slider that he nailed down the left field line for a double to lead off the second. Price ran the count full against the next hitter, Ryan Mulhern, including three of 96 mph fastballs. The first two of these were balls, but Mulhern took the third 96-mph heater right back up the middle for an RBI single. Price continued to blaze the ball against Matt Kata, who hit a sinking liner on another 96 mph pitch, and Perez made a spectacular diving catch to help his pitcher. Jason Delaney was next, and Price was very careful about the 25-year old first baseman, recently called up after hitting .292/.403/.422 in AA:

0-0 Slider (86), fouled back
0-1 Fastball (92), outside
1-1 Fastball (91), outside
2-1 Change (84), inside corner at the knees, called strike
2-2 Fastball (92), outside
3-2 Fastball (92), fouled back, with the runner going
3-2 Fastball (94), way high for the walk

After Bixler pulled a fastball to short for a quick forceout, Duffy returned to the plate and knocked a 95 mph fastball to right field, scoring another run. McCutchen fouled off a couple of sliders before missing a third on a 2-2 pitch, of which I managed to take a pitcure (right). The Bulls, meanwhile, were not fairing too well against Indy lefthander Corey Hamman (3-3, 5.20 ERA, 24 K/ 21 BB in 53 AAA innings). Recent call-up Chris Nowak managed to reach on an error, advanced on a fielders' choice, and scored on a DiFelice dying quail to tie the game at two.

Price returned to the mound for a much improved third inning. He opened up against Pearce with three straight balls, grooved a strike, and then got Pearce to pop up to second on a 95 mph fastball up in the zone. Paulino ran the count full, but was fooled on a pitch down and in, and his check swing was overruled for the strikeout. Cruz swung at both fastballs Price gave him (95 and 96 mph) and knocked the second one to Nowak for an easy grounder to end the inning. The Bulls went down without a blink in the third, including a feeble strikeout on a splitter for Johnny Gomes, who was sporting a double-flapped helmet.

In a symbol of Price's wild pitching, one of his warmup pitches before the fourth flew past DiFelice and straight at my seat; if not for the net I would be one hurt blogger right now. Price fell behind Mulhern for the second straight time and the righty crushed a 3-1 pitch to the warning track; I certainly hope Perez got some kind of prize from Price for his effort tonight. With some action in the bullpen, Price let up a single to right and got a routine double play ball from DeLaney, but Elliot Johnson's throw was in the dirt and the runner was safe. With Price at 77 pitches, it was unclear how much further he'd be allowed to go, especially after this battle with Bixler:

0-0 Slider (86) inside
1-0 Fastball (89) swinging strike
1-1 Fastball (92) swinging strike
1-2 Fastball (92) high
2-2 Fastball (95) fouled back
2-2 Slider (86) inside
3-2 Slider (88) blooped into left-center field, DeLaney to third

I expected Price's night to be done when manager Charlie Montoyo jogged out the mound, but after about 30 seconds Montoyo jogged right back to the dugout, though lefty Heath Phillips was clearly ready. Price's night would last just three more pitches, ending with a Duffy groundout to first to finish the fourth inning. In all he'd thrown 88 pitches, just 53 of them for strikes. His final line: 4 IP, 2 R, 6 H, 2 BB, 3 K.

The most striking thing I noticed, besides the inability to throw in the strike zone, was the dearth of swinging strikes. By my count, Indy hitters swung at 39 of Price's 88 pitches; of these, they missed just six. We learned recently that major league starters get an average of 7.8% swinging strikes, so Price's 6.8% tonight is clearly below average. In addition, I am wondering whether Price has picked up some kind of two-seam or cut fastball; there are definitely two clusters of fastball speeds, one at 90-92 and another at 94-96. Most of the pitches in the first category are thrown outside to right handers, and in this game most of them were unsuccessful. The hit trajectories are also troubling: two of the six hits and four of the eight outs were on the ground. The rest of the batted balls were line drives or fly balls.

Rays fans hoping for a boost from Price in the last month of the season may be asking for too much. Some combination of his first long professional season, and an adjustment to triple-A, has reduced his effectiveness. Batters at this level are not going to be as blown away by a 96 mph heater as they might be at lower levels, and I didn't see any particularly filthy breaking stuff from Price tonight. With just one week left in the AAA season (plus the playoffs), there isn't much time to convert him to a reliever either. It's probably best for Price and for the Rays if he remains in the minors (and off the arbitration clock) in 2008.

Rest of the Game:

I did stay for the rest of the game, although it wasn't too exciting for the Bulls. Heath Phillips relieved Price and surrendered a mammoth 2-run homer to Luis Cruz, not normally known for his power. The ball richoched off the bull that towers over the Blue Monster. Unfortunately, the players don't win a steak anymore... In the sixth inning, Hamman finally wore down and was knocked out by a Chris Richard double. Marino Salas came in and immediately walked the next two batters. Mike DiFelice was next, and took a 2-2 pitch that appeared (and sounded) like it whacked DiFelice in the wrist. The umpire, however, called it a foul ball. Despite Charlie Montoyo stamping his feet and DiFelice grabbing his wrist in front of the trainer (see picture, left), play continued and DiFelice hit the next ball for an inning ending double play... The Indians tacked on some insurance runs off of Nick DeBarr in the ninth; the 24-year old has been pretty awful every time I've seen him pitch... The Bulls faced Evan Meek in the ninth, but the hitters looked to be the ones who would inherit the earth; Nowak, E. Johnson, and John Jaso hit the ball a grand total of ten feet and the game was over.... To sour the mood even further, the post-game fireworks were delayed as rain begain to fall, so I left... Below is a slideshow of all my pictures: please don't take them without crediting me!

All photos taken by Matthew G. Johnson, August 23, 2008.

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