DBAP/ DURHAM—David Price was back on the mound at the DBAP last night. Everyone -- Price, his manager Charlie Montoyo, his catcher John Jaso, and all of us in the press box -- agreed that his second outing of the year was an improvement over the first one. He needed just 65 pitches to finish five innings (the maximum he's allowed), 48 of which were strikes. His velocity was up a little, his slider and his changeup were effective, and he threw first-pitch strikes to 16 of the 20 hitters he faced. He struck out six and walked one.
He also took the loss.
The prevailing wisdom in the baseball stat world these days is that wins and losses are an inadequate measure of a pitcher's performance. Last night was an example. The one run Price allowed was unearned, the result of a second-inning throwing error by Adam Kennedy, a second baseman by trade who is trying to revive his career by styling himself as a utility player. (Kennedy would have had another throwing error had first baseman Chris Richard not bailed him out with a deft catch-and-tag after an offline throw in the third inning.)
In his first outing, Price seemed a bit rattled by some second-inning difficulties, which carried into the third, and last night it threatened to happen again: Price gave up a single and a walk after a sacrifice fly that scored the runner who had moved to third on Kennedy's error. But then he settled down. He faced the minimum until the fifth inning, when the Braves' J. C. Boscan led off with a long double to left-center field. Antonio Perez sacrificed him to third. I had moved down to the box seats for the inning in order to get a closer look at Price, and I could see his face change at this point: He looked as if he had decided to strike out the next two batters. He knew he would be finished at the end of the inning—sooner if he struggled—and decided to "leave it all on the field," as the sports cliche goes.
The next batter was light-hitting center fielder Gregor Blanco, who had already struck out twice. Price whiffed him with three blazing fastballs. After the third one, which Blanco didn't swing at, he glowered back at the umpire. Ordinarily this stare is meant to register displeasure with the call, but in this case Blanco appeared to be asking for help as much as a retraction.
Price started off the next hitter, Reid Gorecki, with a changeup (ball one) and a slider (strike one). The next pitch, a fastball, popped the radar gun at 96mph, faster than Price had generally been throwing last night. "I don't think the last two hitters even saw those pitches," said catcher John Jaso after the game. He was exaggerating a bit—I saw them from fifty feet away—but his point was well taken. Gorecki fouled off another fastball, then swung through another one to to end his at-bat and Price's night. Price had obviously reached back for something extra before hitting the showers.
Price left with a 1-0 deficit thanks to the Kennedy error, and the Bulls ended up losing 3-0. The great young lefthander now has two professional losses, and they have both been handed to him at the DBAP.
Last night's outcome doesn't really matter, of course. In a major league game, Price would probably have stayed in longer, which might in turn have sparked his teammates to score a couple of runs for him. Or he could have simply had better luck and pitched on another night when the hitters brought their bats. (The Bulls are hitting just .220 right now; when will those bats arrive?)
But the outcome mattered to Price. When I asked him about those last two hitters he struck out with an extra measure of heat, Price looked right at me and said, emphatically, "I wanted to win." (Actually, it felt more like he was looking through me: a power pitcher indeed.) He had a runner on third with one out and trailed 1-0 in the fifth inning of a game in which his team, which hasn't scored many runs so far this season, hadn't gotten a single hit yet. Another run could seem like five. In other words, he wasn't just trying to throw harder or impress scouts (there were several in attendance last night). He was trying to win a baseball game. Price even mentioned that the promotion to Tampa he's hoping to earn will come to him not through working on peripheral aspects of pitching but through practical success: getting hitters out as often as he can by the most efficient means he can use.
So when we asked Price about the changeup he's specifically been asked to improve, he answered that he's not approaching it with any special focus, but using it appositely as a complementary part of his arsenal. He said he isn't going to throw it just for the sake of throwing it -- especially not if it isn't working for him on a given night. "It's a feel pitch," he said, noting that most pitchers learn the changeup when they're 13 or 14 years old. "I didn't have to do that," he said, so he's making up for some lost time.
Still, the final two-batter sequence last night showed that Price's feel for the changeup last night was good. He blew Blanco away with three hard fastballs, but he also remembered that Gorecki had "had some good swings" against him, so he started Gorecki with offspeed pitches to keep him off-balance. Price wasn't throwing, he was pitching, and pitching well. He was just a little unlucky last night, though, and lost anyway. And although he's surely aware that minor-league records don't matter much to the Tampa front office, you could tell that Price was disappointed.
So was Charlie Montoyo. The third-year Bulls manager expressed more relief than happiness that his team started the year with a 6-1 homestand despite not hitting well. I was going to ask him about the game of 52-Pickup he's been playing with his lineup each night -- Chris Wise over at Watching Durham Bulls Baseball has some of the crooked numbers -- expecting him to say that the Tampa front office has asked him to shuffle his players around. Surely that's a partial reason, but I think Montoyo is also simply trying to find a lineup that will hit. Given that he has a clutch of players who can handle multiple positions, he may be exploiting the flexibility that gives him in order to jump-start the hitting -- because, like David Price, he wants to win, too. No one who plays the game seriously forgets that.
The Bulls depart today for a ten-game road trip, so the blogging will be less frequent. But before I sign off, a little esprit d'escalier from the clubhouse. Last night we interviewed Braves manager Dave Brundage, Montoyo and Jaso while we waited for Price to appear. We spent a few additional minutes crowded into an alcove by the scale until Price emerged from the training room. As soon as he did, we virtually chased him to his locker. I became aware of the silly sight this must have made for—a small pack of media hyenas following a 6-foot-6 giraffe across the cramped locker room—right about the same moment that Bulls outfielder Jon Weber did. Weber is the sort of antic, needling guy who everyone would like a shot at in the dunking machine—and also the sort of guy who would relish being there. "Where you guys going?" he mocked on his way to the showers. "It's just David Price." Then, noting my Heatmiser coiffure, he added, "What happened to your hair?" I was too busy going after Price to come up with this retort: "What happened to yours?"
See you back at the DBAP on April 28.