Earlier this week, when Evan Longoria went down with a hamstring injury, there was a piece written on this very blog by David Schoenfield saying that the Tampa Bay Rays would be able to survive the loss of their third baseman. And as we sit here on Friday night with the Rays having won six straight -- four of which came without Longoria -- it's safe to say that Mr. Schoenfield is looking pretty smart.
Why are the Rays so well-equipped to survive the loss of an All-Star? Because their starting pitching is the envy of the American League, and it begins with David Price, who struck out 12 Oakland Athletics in eight innings of work on Friday in a 7-2 victory.
Price has been among the better pitchers in baseball over the past two seasons, but it always seemed like he had another level he could reach. He's always been incredibly reliant on his fastball -- and with good reason -- but all of his pitches seemed to be on the same plane. You hear scouts and coaches talk about "changing a hitter's eye level," and Price's offerings have a tendency to to come at hitters from the same angle. As good as his heater is, that weakness makes him hittable when his location is a bit off.
This season, Price has taken to throwing his off-speed stuff with a lot more frequency. Per FanGraphs, he threw either his breaking ball or changeup roughly 20 percent of the time in 2011, and that figure is up above 25 percent this season. That's mostly due to the increased use of his change (approximately 20 percent), though on Friday he threw roughly the same number of each off-speed offering.
That increased use of the change is evident in his performance against right-handed hitters, who have a .574 OPS against him this year, as opposed to lefties, who have a .681 mark. For comparison, righties had a .708 OPS against him in 2011, while lefties posted a .508 OPS.
His strikeout numbers are actually a bit down, as he's fanning just 6.82 men per nine innings. However, the combination of Price's two-seam fastball and changeup is allowing him to generate more ground balls than ever. Price currently has a ground ball-fly ball ratio of 1.14, and his previous career high is 0.85. The Rays' defense is always among the best in the league, so there is no harm in Price sacrificing strikeouts for ground balls. Of course, he did fan 12 men tonight, so don't think he's becoming some sort of pitch-to-contact specialist.
Price's use of his changeup bears watching this season, as he has always need a reliable off-speed pitch to combat righties when his fastball wasn't at its best. If this early-season performance is a sign of what's to come, we're looking at a Cy Young candidate.