David Price has started 24 games this year. Per FanGraphs, he’s been worth 2.2 wins above replacement in those games. But in his last five starts alone, he’s been worth exactly half of that total. He’s been so good recently that Boston media asked him after his most recent start, in which he went seven innings, struck out eight, and only allowed two runs against Tampa Bay, what he had changed. The exchange was direct.
Specifically, Price was asked what he’s done to catch fire. He responded saying that he “made adjustments,” and, when the initial question was followed up with “what kind of adjustments?” he responded saying he wouldn’t say, and that he isn’t going to do the media’s job for them since they don’t do his, and that they can “go back and watch film.”
So I did.
On the left is Price on June 9. On the right is Price on July 12, the start of his best stretch of 2018. There’s a lot going on here. Five things, actually, and they’re all happening in just a couple split seconds that may be difficult to catch in real time.
First things first: he’s moved in more on the rubber toward first base. Even a couple of inches changes the path of the ball to the plate, meaning hitters have automatically been getting an altered look. Then look at his glove, and how high he was lifting it and his right arm earlier this year. It was nearly coming up over his eyes.
That brings us to the third tweak Price has made. His head isn’t poking out quite the same. Now that his glove hand is lower, his view to home is cleaner the entire time through his motion and his upper body can be more relaxed. Just look at the line from the outside of his glove hand to the bend in his throwing elbow. Before he made his adjustments he was rocking up and down much more, almost like an old metronome needle. Only the time he was keeping wasn’t so sharp, which we can get a sense of if we look at number five, his back leg.
Get out of your seat and slowly mimic Price’s motion on the left from earlier this season. Do you feel all the tilt your back leg and knee are left to control from what your torso is doing? It’s a lot. By Price leveling out how he transfers energy through his upper body, he’s letting his lower body stabilize and support himself more easily. His hips can coil and spring outward, moving directly to the plate with less to account for.
Below is a gif of heat maps for each of his individual pitches.
On the left is where Price was placing each pitch before the changes. On the right is where he’s been putting it since. The view is from the catcher’s perspective. Each horizontal dash at the bottom accounts for two feet of distance, and each vertical one accounts for one foot. I left them in so you can get an idea of how much Price’s adjustments to his motion have impacted his control and command.
This is not the kind of tweak we should take for granted, though we often do. For one thing, we ‘re forced to consider just how difficult the Red Sox will be to handle in the playoffs with this version of Price if they got to 50 games over .500 largely without this version of him. And for another, this process could be beneficial to an endless amount of players if delivered in a forward manner.
What Price has effectively done is turn down the noise level within the motor pathways firing off in his brain. It’s not a matter of seeing a perceived mechanical flaw, pointing it out, and suddenly being better, though. This more exaggerated rocking from Price started sneaking into his motion somewhere around 2015. That’s the same time he had his best season to date and finished second in the Cy Young voting. Deliberate or not, it seems to have crawled into his game and been reinforced, creating a wrinkle for him that’s become inhibitive. Fixing it isn’t necessarily so simple.
That’s because the kinds of practice and repetition inherent to baseball are also inherent to automatizing the information a player processes every time they pick up a ball or bat. When we automatize, it’s like learning how to ride a bike without wobbling or falling. It’s what lets us focus on other, more important things, like looking where we’re riding so we don’t drive into a wall or a baby stroller. For David Price, it means being able to execute pitches better. (If you’d like to learn more about our natural pull draw to automatizing procedures, consider reading Zach Schonbrun’s The Performance Cortex, which will promptly blow your mind.)
But automatizing also leaves us open to creating bad habits, where our brains can go on autopilot too long through a process. We become so used to knowing how to ride a bike that our minds wander. We pull out our phone or ride hands-free without thinking. For ballplayers, they might start swinging wildly or superficially capping their power or, in Price’s case, dulling his repertoire. Automatizing is a constantly fluid and tricky process.
Players need to understand why a change makes a difference and how to discern the need for it. They need to know how wading into the waters against what they’ve been doing for a long time in an effort to be their best is actually going to help.
David Price isn’t throwing harder. He hasn’t drastically adjusted his pitch mix more than he has in the past, changed a grip to create more movement on old pitches, or introduced a new pitch.
He explored, understood, and implemented a change to something he’d been doing for years. He adapted a pattern that swayed from exact and automatic to habitual and obstructive. Now the Red Sox have another piece firing on all cylinders as we move toward October, leaving all the other teams in MLB to shudder at the possibilities.
Photo stills from Baseball Savant video. WAR numbers from FanGraphs. Gif made with Giphy. Feature image from Jason Miller/Getty Images