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This Price is still right

The Tampa Bay Rays’ ballgame against the New York Yankees on Friday night should have mattered. The fact that they were able to launch five long balls against one of the best left-handers in the game, CC Sabathia, should have mattered. The gem of a game pitched by the ace of their staff, David Price, should have mattered. The truth is that none of it really mattered at all.

After tonight’s game, the Rays find themselves 9.5 games behind the first-place Red Sox, and 7.5 games behind the Yankees for the American League wild-card slot. Baseball Prospectus has their chances at the postseason at 0.5 percent. To put that in prospective, the Yankees and Red Sox both have odds over 99 percent with more than six weeks to go.

This is the team that won the American League East last year. A team that had better records than both Boston and New York. How did we get here? Public perception is that the Rays don’t score enough runs. The league average for runs scored per game is 4.35; the Rays average 4.28 runs a game, a very minor difference. The Detroit Tigers, a team that looks bound for the playoffs, averages 4.41 runs a game. The problem is, the Rays aren’t competing with the Tigers -- they’re competing with two of the best offenses in baseball, teams that average 5.44 and 5.36 runs per game. Even the Blue Jays, the fourth-place team in the East, averages 4.66 runs per game. Compared to the league, the Rays score almost enough runs. In the American League East, almost enough is never enough.

Along with complaints about their modest offense, many have cited the regression of ace left-hander Price, who finished second in Cy Young voting last year. Price finished the season with a 19-6 record and a 2.72 ERA. He came into tonight’s game a loser of three straight decisions, with a 3.89 ERA, a full run higher than last year’s mark.

As always, wins and losses don’t tell the whole story. Research into other statistics reveals that Price hasn’t truly regressed at all. In fact, he may be better. His K/9 is up this season from 8.1 to 8.7. So, he’s striking out batters at a slightly higher rate than he was last year. Along with that, he’s walking fewer men, as his BB/9 is down a full walk last year’s 3.4 to 2.1 this year. So, if he’s striking players out more frequently and walking them less often, he must just be getting unlucky. Except, that’s not necessarily true either. Opponents’ BABIP against Price is .289, while last year it was .270, hardly enough to claim that he’s simply a victim of bad luck.

The true problem with Price this year is that he’s giving up home runs. Price’s HR/9 rate is up to 1.0 after allowing only 0.6 per nine last year. Even though batters aren’t reaching base as easily against Price this year, when they’re making contact, they make it count. It’s worth noting that Price is throwing almost twice as many changeups as he did last year (5.5 percent of the time last year, 10.1 percent this year). Batters may be sitting on that pitch, waiting to jack it out of the park.

The most telling stat about how little difference a year makes is Price’s FIP. At the end of last season it stood at 3.42. This year? It’s at 3.41. The strides he has made in strikeouts and walks have been held back by the fact that he’s been giving up too many long balls, but essentially he’s still the same talent the Rays expected him to be. If he can start limiting the number of home runs he’s allowing, he may not finish just second once it’s time for voters to turn in their ballots -- next year, because this year’s running out of time.

The Rays can take pride in their 5-1 victory tonight. They hit five home runs and beat Sabathia, one of the best left-handers in the game. Their ace performed like they expect him to, and he didn’t give up any home runs. But on Saturday morning, Joe Maddon will look at the standings and he’ll see a 7.5-game deficit to make up. He’ll write out his lineup card as best he can with the hitters he’s given. He’ll watch rookie Jeremy Hellickson warm up, ready to attack one of the best offenses in baseball, the offense that this small market team has to outplay every year if they want to make the playoffs. He’ll wonder if it’s all just a little unfair.

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Alex Convery writes for Fire Brand of the American League, the Red Sox affiliate of the SweetSpot network. You can follow him on Twitter.