From last year until forever, maybe, one-game playoffs are going to be a part of our postseason viewing reality. Entire seasons are going to come down to nine-inning snapshots, meaning everything’s going to ride on winning those nine innings. One of the best ways to maximize win probability is to be aggressive with the bullpen. To be aggressive with getting it involved, and to be aggressive with changing it up. Starters, as a rule, get worse as a game goes on. Relievers are good, especially fresh. Almost every one-game playoff preview we write here will suggest a starter not last too long, because that tends not to be the sensible course. Monday night, there was a one-game playoff between the Rangers and Rays. The Rays opted not to use their bullpen at all. The Rays will face the Indians in Cleveland on Wednesday, in large part thanks to David Price.
So much of the pregame discussion focused on Price’s poor personal history against the Rangers over his career. Nevermind that Price has gotten a lot better, and that the Rangers have changed, and that they never met before in 2013. The talk was that Price struggled against Texas, especially in Texas. The Rangers, in theory, could go in with confidence, and Price came away with a complete-game seven-hitter, the Rangers scoring just twice and not really threatening after the sixth. Price didn’t pitch like he’d pitched against Texas. He pitched like he’d pitched overall.
Not that it started real well. Price struck out his first batter, but in a full count. The next walked on four pitches. The next made an out, but after taking a couple balls. Price didn’t throw many first-inning strikes, and he took some time to find his release point. But an out on the bases gave Price a break, and before long he wouldn’t be needing many breaks.
There was no key to Price’s start. There was no one thing he did extraordinarily well, that he doesn’t usually. He didn’t dominate with a particular pitch. He didn’t have the Rangers swinging blind, as evidenced by the modest four swinging strikes. Price succeeded in the way that he does now: he threw hard, he got in the zone, and he seldom left it. Over 18 starts since coming off the disabled list, Price has issued 13 walks. He hasn’t quite been Twins material, but only because the stuff is too good. You can think of Price more as turning into Cliff Lee.
On the evening, Price threw first-pitch strikes 23 of 34 times. Nearly seven of ten pitches were strikes overall, many of them in the zone as Price challenged his opponents. Just throwing strikes isn’t enough to be good — one might conceivably be entirely too hittable. But Price has a considerable margin of error, and so he can look in command when he isn’t getting ugly swings.
Why didn’t the Rangers have success against Price this time, as opposed to previous times? Here’s one attempted explanation:
“He threw a lot of breaking pitches,” shortstop Elvis Andrus said. “Before he used to throw a lot of fastballs to us, and that’s why we always hit well. Today, we made adjustments, and he threw a ton of changeups and a ton of breaking balls to get ahead. He was locating the pitches pretty good, too.”
To analyze this, it depends what you make of cutters. Some might consider them fastballs, while others might consider them offspeed pitches. If you call them fastballs, then tonight Price threw 83% fastballs, against an average of 80% against the Rangers before. If you call them offspeed pitches, then tonight Price threw 62% fastballs, against an average of 72% against the Rangers before. But following that idea, Price was cutter-heavy against the Rangers the two previous times they’d faced. So while you don’t want to discount Andrus’ statements, it’s hard to find his truth in the numbers. As for first pitches, Price threw 19 fastballs, eight cutters, two curves, and five changeups. It was the fastball with which he got ahead most often.
Maybe the biggest thing is just Andrus’ last sentence. You can talk about individual pitches all you want, but pitches are only as good as the locations in which they end up, and Price seemed to get more and more accurate. As Price remained in the game, Dave and I wondered out loud why Joe Maddon wasn’t going to his relief. Maddon, surely, knows how starters tend to progress, and he had a full bullpen, and the Rangers’ lineup had only three lefties. Maddon more or less went with his gut, although his gut was informed:
Maddon said Monday’s win was “all about David.”
“That was his best game against this club, best game in this ballpark,” Maddon said. “During the course of the game, I kept talking to [catcher Jose Molina], and he said he was getting better and better, and I could see that from the side. There was no way I wanted to take him out. He was outstanding. I thought his stuff kept getting better.”
There is no easy proxy for in-game improvement, and Price’s velocity declined over the course, as you’d expect. But here’s one attempt: in the bottom of the fourth, Alex Rios lined out leading off. Through that point, Price had put three of nine balls in play on the ground. After that, he kept 13 of 19 balls in play on the ground. After the second inning, three-quarters of Price’s pitches went for strikes. Let’s just use that Rios line-out as a dividing point, as arbitrary as it is. Here are Price’s split pitch locations:
It was as simple as Price pitching more within the zone, getting strikes around the edges without relying on them. This was a Rays game in which few opposing hitters got Molina’d. Price went in the opposite direction of the usual trend, and Maddon figured, in this particular game, the bullpen might not represent a step up.
I suppose I’m obligated to acknowledge that Price ultimately threw a complete game with a lot of balls in play in it. Here is where those pitches were located, with the blue dots being pitches to lefties and the red dots being pitches to righties:
Price did stay out of the very center of the zone. His fortune came in a few forms: Elvis Andrus got picked off in the first, Ian Kinsler got picked off in the third, and Nelson Cruz lined out to James Loney in the second with Adrian Beltre in scoring position. Additionally, Alex Rios doubled a run home in the sixth, but the ball looked like a dinger off the bat, and it hit the top of the fence. In that case, Price threw a bad pitch and he got partially burned.
After the early innings, though, Price was seldom in real trouble. Rios was the one batter to destroy a pitch, and he couldn’t get all of it. What the numbers show is that starters come in and pitch well before gradually getting worse and worse. It’s been this way for Price over his career. This wasn’t the case on Monday, as Price got settled in. Studio analysts like to talk about the need to get to good starters early. Usually that theory is crap, but it was probably the case for Texas. What Price was missing, he found.
Maybe, the Rays will play just one more game. Maybe David Price’s 2013 season is over. Even if it is, he’s written some new history. And now we won’t have to hear anymore about the unbalanced schedule. That doesn’t have anything to do with David Price, but I figured we’re just celebrating positives.