When David Price first joined the Detroit Tigers last summer, he was joining a rotation that looked like baseball’s answer to The Avengers. It was a super-rotation, alright, with a collection of the last three American League Cy Young winners. 

But that was then. This is now. Where Price was one of the guys then, he’s must be the guy now if Detroit’s pitching is going to be worth a darn in 2015.

That’s is a dicey proposition, but we can get into it after we first get caught up.

You may have noticed the last few months haven’t been kind to Detroit’s rotation. Justin Verlander never pulled out of the cringeworthy slump that started last May, putting one former Cy Young winner on the rocks. Another departed when Max Scherzer signed a megacontract with the Washington Nationals.

Rick Porcello, he of the career-best 3.43 ERA last year, is also gone. He and Scherzer have been replaced by Alfredo Simon and Shane Greene, making Detroit’s projected rotation:

  1. David Price
  2. Justin Verlander
  3. Anibal Sanchez
  4. Alfredo Simon
  5. Shane Greene

This is barring any additional moves, of course, but it sounds like we can bar them. 

“We’re happy with the guys we have,” Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski told Anthony Fenech of the Detroit Free Press. “And we anticipate this will be the five going into the season.”

Admittedly, things could look worse on paper. Price and Verlander are still former Cy Young winners. Sanchez quietly won the AL ERA crown in 2013. Simon was a National League All-Star in 2014. Greene broke through to the tune of a solid 3.78 ERA in 2014.

For each positive outlook, however, there’s one at least equally strong negative outlook.

Verlander is a soon-to-be 32-year-old with declining velocity who was among baseball’s worst pitchers in 2014. Sanchez is a 30-year-old whose 2014 was wrecked by injuries, and his overall injury history suggests good health is probably not forthcoming. Simon regressed badly after last year’s All-Star break. Greene’s breakout was limited to a mere 14-start sample size.

So no, Detroit’s rotation doesn’t look particularly strong. Definitely not as strong as your typical Tigers rotation, anyway, and the projections bear that out.

FanGraphs’ 2015 projections barely have the Tigers in the top 10 for starting pitcher Wins Above Replacement, which is saying something since Tigers starters have produced by far the most WAR of any team’s starters since 2011.

Once you factor in how Detroit’s bullpen is still weak and how the club’s offense will be banking on a badly damaged Miguel Cabrera, the Tigers’ chances of being contenders in 2015 may hinge on their rotation being at least as good as the projections expect it to be. Hopefully for Detroit, it will be even better.

And more than anyone, that will come down to Price.

On the surface, it doesn’t look like the idea of Price being the ace the Tigers need him to be is worth worrying about. The 29-year-old southpaw is elite by reputation, and he’s coming off an ace-like year.

Price led all major league pitchers in innings pitched (248.1) and strikeouts (271) in 2014. He also only walked 38 along the way, giving him a 7.13 K/BB ratio that ranked among baseball’s best.

If that sounds like a guy who pitched better than his non-ace-like 3.26 ERA indicates, there is an explanation for that. Per FanGraphs, the FIP, xFIP and SIERA metrics all think Price should have had an ERA in the 2.70 range. Knowing these metrics can be more predictive of future performance than ERA, that bodes well.

It also says a lot about Price that he looks like an ideal ace from some perspectives. He’s turned himself into an elite strike-thrower, as he ranked among the elites in strike percentage and zone percentage in 2014. But he also still has power stuff, as evidenced by his career-best 10.5 swinging-strike percentage.

So in theory, Price could be the ace the Tigers need him to be in 2015 by picking up where he left off. He was already really good, and him being even better could be a matter of him simply collecting on the good luck that didn’t come his way often enough in 2014.

There’s a chance, however, that it might not be that simple. Though there’s a lot to like about how Price pitched last year, that modest 3.26 ERA isn’t actually that misleading.

Price may have led the league in strikeouts last year, but he also led in hits allowed while allowing a career-high 25 home runs. The size of his workload was a factor, granted, but so was hard contact.

The two best batted balls a pitcher can hope for are ground balls and infield pop-ups. And according to FanGraphs, Price experienced career worsts in both categories (GB% and IFFB%) as a starter in 2014:

When batters aren’t hitting ground balls or pop-ups, they’re hitting line drives and fly balls. Those are two things that can really sting pitchers, and Price did indeed give up a bunch of both. He was one of only 12 qualified starters with a line-drive rate of at least 20.6 and a fly-ball rate of at least 38.0.

And in Price’s case, this isn’t fluky. Pitchers can invite hard contact, after all, and he was guilty of that.

For starters, Price wasn’t very subtle with where he threw the ball in the strike zone. He went right down the middle of the zone more than anyone else in baseball, per BaseballSavant.com, and gave up more fly balls and line drives in that vicinity than all but four others.

That’s the risk you run when you pitch down the middle, and the risk is heightened if you can’t blow hitters away and/or keep hitters off balance.

And on those fronts, Price’s outlook isn’t entirely positive.

Though Brooks Baseball can vouch that Price got plenty of whiffs on his heat in 2014, repeating that could be tough. According to FanGraphs, his average heater has declined from a peak of 95.5 miles per hour in 2012 to 93.2 miles per hour in 2014. In 2015, it should slip even further.

Price will have to change speeds effectively to hide that, and the catch there is his primary pitch for the job suddenly doesn’t look up to the task.

Over the last few years, Price has all but shelved his curveball in favor of his changeup. That’s a fine idea in theory, but it wasn’t an effective pitch in 2014. By True Average—Baseball Prospectus’ all-encompassing batting metric—it was actually one of the five worst among heavily-used changeups.

When Jake Dal Porto of Beyond the Box Score looked in June, he noticed that a lot of that had to do with how many of Price’s changeups were finding their way down the middle. Here’s an example, courtesy of George Springer:

But Price’s changeup velocity was just as big an issue. While his fastball velocity went down to 93.2 miles per hour, his changeup velocity went up to 84.9 miles per hour.

That’s only an 8.3 mile-per-hour difference, which is notably less than the 10-plus mile-per-hour difference that Harry Pavlidis of Baseball Prospectus says is ideal. And while location issues can be tweaked, this is something that will be considerably harder to fix.

If you want the short version of all this, here it is: Maybe Price improving on his 2014 season won’t be as simple as him picking up where he left off and collecting on some outstanding good luck. If he wants to avoid the hard contact that plagued him in 2014, he may have to adjust.

To this end, the bright side is that there’s hope. Maybe Price can become the next Jon Lester.

Price has already evolved into an all-out assaulter of the strike zone, so his next step should be to become more crafty with what appears to be fading stuff. That’s where Lester works as an example to strive for, as Grantland’s Shane Ryan highlighted how Lester found success by masking diminished stuff with pinpoint command and sequencing. 

All Price has to do to take after Lester is improve his already very good command and maybe become more unpredictable in how he distributes his fastball and changeup. If he can do that, he could turn into a strikeout machine who also manages contact well.

It’s hard to ask for a more ideal ace than that. But one way or another, that’s the kind of ace the Tigers will need. Such a pitcher would have been overkill if their rotation still had Scherzer and Porcello alongside a vintage Verlander and a functional Sanchez, but that’s not what the Tigers have.

No, sir. What they have is a rotation that needs to be strong enough at the top to make you forget about the bottom. 


Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked.  

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