David Price starts for the Tampa Bay Rays on Monday night against the Texas Rangers to open a crucial three-game series, albeit more crucial for the Rays than the Rangers. A David Price start is always one to pay attention to, for a somewhat obvious reason: Price is one of those starters with an electric fastball, in the simple sense of "it's really fast." I mean, I love Felix Hernandez's changeup and R.A. Dickey's knuckler and Clayton Kershaw's slider, but there's an old-school beauty to those starting pitchers who will just rear back in a big situation and attempt to blow a high hard one past the enemy batsman.
Price is one of those guys. His average fastball velocity this season is 95.4 mph, just a tick behind Stephen Strasburg's 95.7 for fastest in the majors among starting pitchers. Considering it's coming from a 6-foot-6 frame, it's a fastball that also comes with an intimidation factor, somewhat in the mode of Randy Johnson. Not surprisingly, left-handers are only hitting .195 off Price, after hitting .171 a season ago. It may be a nice game for Josh Hamilton to enjoy a day off, although Richard Durrett writes that Price hasn't fared well against the Rangers in his career.
When you think of dominant left-handed starters with big fastballs, don't you have to start thinking of Price as one of the elite? Besides Johnson, I think of pitchers like Sandy Koufax, Sam McDowell, Lefty Grove, Steve Carlton, Mark Langston and Herb Score. While Johnson (fastball/slider) and Koufax (fastball/curveball) essentially dominated with two pitches, Price has developed a solid four-pitch repertoire that includes a slider, curve and changeup, a key reason behind his recent dominant run in which he's gone 8-0 with a 1.45 ERA over his past 12 starts. But everything still feeds off his fastball; Price's .270 wOBA (weighted on-base average) allowed against his fastball is third-lowest among starting pitchers, behind only Jered Weaver and Brandon Beachy. While those two are fly ball pitchers, Price's dominance is seen in this rare combination: He's the only starter this season who has fanned at least 25 percent of the batters he's faced and generated a groundball rate of at least 50 percent. Strikeout and groundballs are good things.
Price isn't the only Tampa Bay pitcher on a roll right now, of course. The Rays are in the midst of a historic run of pitching excellence. According to ESPN Stats and Info, the Rays have allowed 76 runs over their past 35 games; the last team to do that was the 1981 Astros, from Aug. 25-Sept. 29. The last American League team to do that was the 1968 Yankees. The Tampa Bay bullpen has a 0.85 ERA over that span, helping the Rays to a season team ERA of 3.26, which would be the lowest in the AL since the 1990 A's posted a 3.18 mark.
Still, Price sets the tone and has become the Cy Young favorite in a crowded and talented American League field. Here are the current leaders:
Price: 16-4, 2.28 ERA, 170 IP, 132 H, 46 R, 50 BB, 167 SO, 5.2 WAR
Justin Verlander: 12-7, 2.50 ERA, 190.2 IP, 63 R, 47 BB, 192 SO, 6.2 WAR
Felix Hernandez: 12-5, 2.54 ERA, 187.2 IP, 56 R, 45 BB, 179 SO, 4.6 WAR
Chris Sale: 15-4, 2.65 ERA, 153 IP, 122 H, 46 R, 36 BB, 150 SO, 5.4 WAR
Jered Weaver: 16-3, 2.74 ERA, 148 IP, 112 H, 48 R, 33 BB, 113 SO, 3.2 WAR
Hiroki Kuroda: 12-9, 2.98 ERA, 175 IP, 153 H, 62 R, 40 BB, 131 SO, 5.3 WAR
Matt Harrison: 15-7, 3.04 ERA, 169 IP, 159 H, 59 R 48 BB, 101 SO, 5.4 WAR
Verlander's big edge over Price is he's pitched 20 more innings, but considering Price leads the AL in ERA and is tied with Weaver in wins, he's probably the favorite among the voting bloc. Price has made eight starts against the Rangers, Red Sox and Yankees, the AL's big three offensive teams; but Verlander has also faced them eight times. Price has a 3.12 ERA in those eight starts, Verlander a 2.93 mark (although with seven unearned runs allowed). King Felix, by the way, has made six starts against those three clubs and has delivered a 1.29 ERA and three shutouts.
Besides Verlander, it's worth noting that Sale, Kuroda and Harrison also have matched Price's WAR. Park effects are coming into play there, as Kuroda and Harrison have to ply their trades in more hitter-friendly parks. Indeed, Price has a 1.66 ERA at home, 2.93 on the road. And the underrated Sale continues to put up impressive numbers.
We'll dig deeper into this later in the season, but right now it appears Price is on track to win his first Cy Young Award. For the Rays, however, the more important goal: Win tonight and inch another game closer to the Yankees. As always, never count out Joe Maddon's club.