A 7.06 ERA through four starts is hardly what Red Sox fans expected from David Price, but it's bound to get better -- and not because he faces the Braves, baseball's 30th-ranked offense in both runs scored and OPS, on Tuesday night. (OK, not only because of that.)
How can we say that? Usually, when a pitcher seems to be struggling that badly, there's some obvious warning signs. You might expect, for example, that the pitcher is suddenly no longer missing bats and is allowing the opposition to make a ton of contact. That's not the case for Price; actually, the exact opposite is true. Among 100 qualified pitchers this year, only one has been more difficult to hit than Price:
Other names on the top 10 of that list include Noah Syndergaard, Corey Kluber and Clayton Kershaw, as expected. Limiting contact is something good pitchers do. Compare that 65.8-percent mark to Price's career contact rate of 79.5 percent, and he's well above that, as evidenced by 31 strikeouts in 21 2/3 innings. In fact, this part of it is so not a problem that Price's 16-percent swinging-strike rate -- that's a measure of swinging strikes per total pitches -- would be in the top five of any season going back to 2002.
So it's not that. It's not sudden wildness, either. Price has walked 6.2 percent of hitters, and while that's up slightly over his past few seasons, it's right on target with his career average of 6.3 percent. (Though he does have five combined wild pitches and hit by pitches already, compared to seven all of last year.)
All of that stands in Price's favor, and even what seems to be a worrisome drop in velocity (down from 94.6 mph to 92.6 mph, per Statcast™) can be explained away somewhat, since it includes his season debut on a frigid day in Boston on which he averaged 92 mph, compared to 93.3 mph in his last outing.
While the velocity issue is something to keep an eye on, so far none of this seems to be the problem -- and yet the 7.06 ERA sticks out like a sore thumb. So what is the problem?
It's easy to point to "small sample size," and in some sense that's true. Right now, stars like Chris Archer (5.47 ERA), Matt Harvey (5.24), Justin Verlander (5.79) and Zack Greinke (6.16) have all run into early-season issues. If you don't believe that St. Louis shortstop Aledmys Diaz is really going to hit .481 all season -- and he won't -- then you shouldn't believe that these pitchers will struggle all year, because they won't.
But that's not satisfying enough for Price, and so we can look a little deeper. In his case, the troubles so far seem to be based in large part on what happens when he allows runners to reach base -- and how he's allowed clusters of hits, or "sequencing," to beat him.
In Price's case, he's allowed 21 hits so far. Eight of them -- nearly 40 percent of his season total -- have come in just two innings, the fourth on April 5 and the fourth on April 21. Three more came in the third inning against Baltimore on April 11. That's more than half of his hits allowed in just 14 percent of his innings. If Price had allowed the exact same number of hits but they were spread out a little more, we wouldn't be talking about any "issues" right now.
Needless to say, hits with men on base do a lot more damage than hits without. Price has allowed 13 hits with the bases empty and allowed one run, on an Evan Longoria solo homer. He's allowed a similar 11 hits with runners on base, allowing 16 runs. This isn't unexpected, of course -- obviously it's easier to score runs with runners on. It's just that what's extremely unexpected is how teams have approached Price differently, and aggressively:
We've talked a lot about hitters becoming more aggressive across baseball, because it only makes sense -- why bother getting a starter out of the game just so you can see a slew of fireballing relievers? For Price, he's been in the 30-32-percent range for a few years, but you can see that with runners on base, suddenly this year hitters are attacking him right away -- and he's allowed an .853 OPS against with runners on.
That's not to say that Price is only allowing hits on the first pitch with runners on. But the strategy makes sense, because while a pitcher may be able to live with a walk with the bases empty, no one wants to add to a growing problem. Indeed, with no runners on, 40 percent of his pitches are in the zone. With runners in scoring position, that becomes 45 percent. Hitters know that.
It's borne out in exit velocity. With no runners on, Price pitches in the zone are hit at 93 mph. With runners on, it's up to nearly 98, which is a huge difference. We may be getting into the difference between "control" and "command" here -- control is throwing strikes, but command is throwing good strikes (that's too simplistic of a definition, but you get the idea). The point is, it's a lot harder to paint the corners when a pitcher is worried about walks. For Price, with runners on, if he's hitting the meat of the zone more, hitters are letting him know about it.
So that's an obvious issue to work on, particularly if there's something mechanical affecting him between the windup and the stretch. (Interestingly, Price is throwing slightly harder with runners on than with the bases empty.) But the good news here is that nothing seems injury-related or irreparable. He's still missing a ton of bats. He's still limiting free passes. He's still David Price, and there's no antidote like the Braves.
Mike Petriello is an analyst for MLB.com and the host of the Statcast podcast. He has previously written for ESPN Insider and FanGraphs. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.