No, David Price Is Not a Poor Postseason Pitcher
It’s over you guys! We did it!
OK, “we” didn’t actually do anything, but by allowing 4 runs in two starts with 19 strikeouts and 5 walks this October, Clayton Kershaw finally put to rest the silly notion the best pitcher in baseball is incapable of pitching in the postseason.
But like the moles in those carnival games, it seems like whenever one annoying narrative goes down, another pops up to take its place.
David Price now finds himself in the #unclutch crosshairs, after allowing 13 runs in 16.2 innings this postseason.
His struggles this October have dropped his career postseason ERA to 5.24 (and for those who care about such things, his playoff record is 2-7).
Over 56.2 playoff innings with the Rays, Tigers and Blue Jays, Price has allowed 33 earned runs, while striking out 51, walking 11, and allowing 9 home runs.
In terms of run prevention, the results have certainly not been good, but is it really fair to say he can’t pitch in the playoffs? (And just in case you don’t have time to finish reading, I’ll just spoil it for you: No, it’s an unfair and dumb thing to say).
How Poorly Has He Actually Pitched?
In the postseason, Price has struck out 21.5% of the batters he has faced, while walking 4.6%. His 16.9% K-BB% is right in line with his 17.1% career average and translates to a 3.37 kwERA.
Based solely on strikeouts and walks, Price has not had a problem in the playoffs.
If we also look at his batted ball profile, there is again little difference between “regular season Price” and “October Price.” In the playoffs, Price has allowed a 46.5% ground ball rate, compared to 44.2% in the regular season. His xFIP and xFIP- (3.51 and 87) are within range of his regular season marks of 3.35 and 82.
Also, his postseason SIERA of 3.03 is 34 points better than his regular season career average.
While his strikeout and walk-based earned run average estimators project an ERA in the low/mid 3.00s, we know his actual postseason ERA is above 5, so what gives?
Perhaps surprisingly, BABIP has not been the driving force here. His postseason BABIP of .294 is higher than his regular season mark, but only by 12 points.
The actual culprits have been his home run per fly ball rate and strand rate.
In the postseason, 14.3% of the fly balls Price has allowed have left the park, upping his home runs per nine innings rate to 1.43.
The home runs explain why, despite the good strikeout and walk rates, Price’s postseason FIP is 4.10 (his playoff FIP- is 102).
While giving up home runs is certainly bad (it is, after all, the worst thing a pitcher can allow), this may not all be Price’s fault, but rather random variation (or even “bad luck,” if you will).
We should generally expect a pitcher to allow a HR/FB rate of 10.0% and pitchers who stray too far above or below this rate should be expected to regress towards the mean in the long run.
Some pitchers may be worse at this than others, but Price does not appear to be one of them, as he has allowed a 9.0% HR/FB rate during his regular season career.
It might be tempting to still knock Price for pitching worse in the playoffs, thus explaining the high HR/FB rate.
In reality, we don’t have nearly enough data to say something like that with any degree of certainty.
In 2013, Russell Carleton of Baseball Prospectus found that it takes about 400 fly balls allowed for home run per fly ball rate to stabilize for a pitcher (meaning we can conclude his numbers are more of a product of his performance than random variation).
During postseason play, Price has allowed a grand total of...63 fly balls.
Contrast this with the 1,440 fly balls he has allowed in the regular season (where he has posted an above-average HR/FB rate) and it is easy to conclude Price has simply been unlucky to watch an inordinate amount of flies leave the park in October.
Price has also been victimized by the “strand rate dragon,” as his postseason left-on-base rate of 61.6% is well below the league average.
Like HR/FB rate, LOB% is something pitchers have very limited control over, as it does not correlate with itself at a high rate on a year-to-year basis and tends to regress to the mean over time (usually in the low 70s; in 2015, the big league average was 72.9%).
Again, it is hard to pin this one on Price, given what we know about the stat’s volatility. Perhaps those in favor of the #unclutch #narrative might say Price gets nervous with men on in big games.
If this were truly the case, Price must have repeatedly conquered and rediscovered this fear season after season. In two playoff starts in 2010 with Tampa Bay, Price allowed a strand rate of 63.4%. The following season, he stranded 75.8% of baserunners in his one, 6.2-inning playoff start.
In his next postseason in 2013, he only stranded 48.8% of runners who reached, before leaving 90.9% of all base runners on base in last season’s playoffs. This October, his LOB% is 44.0%.
These results confirm what we already know about LOB% randomness, and since strand rate correlates with ERA at a very high rate, this seems to explain much of the remaining difference between Price’s peripherals and ERA (for qualifying starters in 2015, LOB% and ERA correlated at -0.81; 0 implies no relationship, -1 implies a perfectly negative relationship, so as strand rate decreased, ERA increased at a similar rate).
In terms of the things he can control, mainly strikeouts, walks and keeping the ball on the ground, Price has been the same dominant pitcher in October as he has been from April to September.
Factors more prone to random variation have done him in for most of his playoff career, but given the small sample size we are dealing with, we have no reason to expect this to continue.
Rather, expect Price’s future playoff results to match his reputation as one of the game’s best pitchers.