Slow to Success: David Price and MLB’s Pace of Play

David Price is the slowest-working pitcher in a game that is volunteering itself to get faster, and he and his Cy Young Award might get left behind.

Excuse the hyperbole, but Price and his snail-like pace are worth analyzing as the 2015 Major League Baseball season ramps up the enforcement of its new speed-of-the-game rules. During the first week of action, we have been asking how pitchers will adjust to a 20-second clock timing their homeward hurls and how batters will adjust to keeping at least one foot in the batter’s box as they wait for them to arrive.

The second question to ask is which players will have the hardest adjustment to make.

Texas Rangers’ 18-year veteran Adrian Beltre, for example, had to be reminded in his fourth at-bat of the season that he was no longer allowed to wander off mid-sequence; Beltre could be one of 10 players to whom the league has already issued a written warning.

Price very likely wasn’t. After all, ball players (even more so than athletes in other sports) are generally creatures of habit, stick to their routines and even yield, infamously, to superstition, particularly when it precedes success. Price, perhaps even beyond Beltre, has had a lot of success.

But it’s no coincidence that his Cy-earning, 20-win 2012 campaign occurred the last time he sported a league-average pace, a metric made possible by PITCHf/x and made popular by Fangraphs. It simply measures the amount of time taken by a pitcher or batter between pitches and is measured in seconds.

“David

The Tampa Bay Rays-turned-Detroit Tigers left-hander has “led” MLB in pace each of the past two seasons, with 25.8 in 2013 and 26.6 in ’14. Last season, in fact, he was the only full-time starter among the 56 slowest pitchers in baseball (more on the starters-relievers comparison below).

Price and his former organization seem to be aware of this fact. Tampa Bay has had the slowest pitching staff each of the past two years and has ranked in the bottom five every annum since 2008, more than hinting at an organizational philosophy that slower is better. And if Price himself wasn’t previously aware of his sluggishness on the mound, he was made aware of it in February, when he complained about the MLB’s shift in philosophy.

What Price might like to know is that, over the course of his eight-year career, he is actually more successful when he spends less time thinking or fidgeting. In fact, in the 10 percent of his starts where he registered the fastest pace, he won 12 of 18 decisions with a 2.60 ERA. In the 10 percent of his outings where he recorded the slowest pace, he was 5-4 with a 4.39 ERA.

The obvious caveat is that all pitchers, not just Price, tend to slow down with runners aboard to avoid making a bad situation worse. Still, consider this: Price was 31 percent more likely to allow a baserunner when he was at his slowest.

Beyond the numbers, any player fielding behind Price, on the Rays or the Tigers, would be in favor of faster pitching. The quicker he receives the baseball, accepts a signal from the catcher and begins his windup, the better his defense performs because it’s mentally in the game and prepared at every moment. When he slows down, inevitably they do, too.

Additionally, Price’s pace was a closer-to-average 23.9 seconds in his Opening Day start on April 6, when he limited the Minnesota Twins to five hits in 8 2/3 innings in a game that lasted 2 hours and 30 minutes, start to finish.

The very next outing, he took 27.9 seconds to throw each pitch while allowing three unearned runs and exiting after just 5 2/3 frames.

From sample sizes large to small, faster equals more effective.

Here are three more takeaways from our study of the game of baseball’s speed that are worth sharing:

Starters vs. Relievers

17 of the 20 quickest-working pitchers in baseball were starting pitchers, and each of the 20 slowest-working pitchers in baseball were relievers. Neither of these facts should be stunning. Ostensibly, starters work faster to acquire and maintain a rhythm early in the game, and relievers slow themselves down for higher-pressure, often more meaningful situations late in the game, when it can be decided from one pitch to the next.

After looking at the hurlers in the top and bottom 10 percentiles of the 242 hurlers who completed less than 80 innings in 2014, however, we found that relievers were right to take their time. The slowest among them (with an average pace of 28.9) yielded a BABIP and FIP that were 14 and 6 percent lower than the fastest (average pace of 20.42). In non-mathematical English, relievers who worked slower were noticeably if not significantly more effective than those on the opposite end of the spectrum. This was not the case for starters, a group that experiences much less disparity in pace overall, Price notwithstanding.

The 10 Fastest Working Starting Pitchers in 2014

Proving that quick can work too, here are some big names, from Buehrle and a knuckle-balling teammate to phenoms in Miami and St. Louis.

Rank

NameTeamInnings PitchedBABIPFIPPace
1Mark BuehrleBlue Jays2020.3163.6617.3

2

R.A. DickeyBlue Jays2150.2634.3218.3

3

Doug FisterNationals1640.262 3.9318.5

4

Brett AndersonRockies430.3142.9919.0

5

Wade MileyDiamondbacks2010.3173.9819.0

6

Jon NieseMets1870.3043.6719.2

7

Jose FernandezMarlins510.2712.1819.4

8

Vidal NunoDiamondbacks1610.2794.5119.4

9

Andrew CashnerPadres1230.2743.0919.5

10

Michael WachaCardinals1070.2883.1719.5

The 10 Slowest Working Starting Pitchers in 2014

Notice here that two members of Price's old team, Tampa Bay, made the list. Another trend: Three Japanese League alumni prefer patience.

RankNameTeamInnings PitchedBABIPFIPPace

1

David PriceTigers248.10.3062.7826.6

2

Jorge de la RosaRockies184.10.2634.3426.0

3

Erik BedardRays75.20.3124.3925.7

4

Clay BuchholzRed Sox170.10.3154.0125.6

5

Tyler SkaggsAngels113.00.2933.5525.4

6

Edinson VolquezPirates192.20.2634.1525.3

7

Hiroki KurodaYankees199.00.2793.6025.2

8

Chris ArcherRays194.20.2963.3925.2

9

Masahiro TanakaYankees136.10.2993.0425.1

10

Yu DarvishRangers144.10.3342.8425.1

*FIP: Fielding Independent Pitching, *or an estimate of a pitcher’s ERA (earned run average) based on strikeouts, walks/hit-by-pitches, and home runs allowed, assuming league average results on balls in play.)

*BABIP: Batting Average on Balls in Play, *or the rate at which the pitcher allows a hit when the ball is put in play, calculated as (H-HR)/(AB-K-HR+SF).

The Effect on Hitters

As far back as Little League, hitters are taught to keep an opposing pitcher on their schedule, not the other way around. This is why you see 12 year-olds on smaller diamonds across the country facing their palm at home plate umpires, stepping away from the plate, adjusting their batting gloves and tapping the bat against the bottoms of their cleats. They do it because Major Leaguers do it… because Major Leaguers were taught to when they were the same age.

Veteran sluggers Hanley Ramirez (28.1 pace) and Troy Tulowitzki (27.9) must have played Little League. When facing a pitcher like the famously fast Mark Buerhle (career pace of 16.8), they routinely try to slow him down, a strategy that Price naturally espouses.

Therein lies some hitters’ inherent problem with the new rules. They see MLB handing more control – and therefore power – to the pitcher. Designated hitter David Ortiz, a teammate of Ramirez with the Boston Red Sox, was one of the rule's earliest detractors. He does have something to worry about, as he ranked 34th among time-killing batter in 2014, with a pace of 25.2 seconds. (Through 11 games this season, the 39-year-old Ortiz recorded a career-low 23.1 pace.)

If it makes “Big Papi” feel any better, we didn’t find that slower was all that much better than faster for offensive-minded players. Of those with 200 or more plate appearances in 2014, the slowest 10 percent of batters had BABIP of .313 and OBP (on-base percentage) of .331 compared with .307 and .323 in the same categories for the fastest 10 percent.

From a team-wide perspective, we did find a significant disparity between the amount of time nine-man lineups took in and out of the box a season ago. In the graph below, you'll see which teams were patient and which took less time between pitches. Interestingly, the most patient three teams won an average of 91 games last year while the three least patient clubs averaged 14 fewer, 77 wins.

Average Pace of MLB Hitters in 2o14 by Team

The Rules

With the average MLB game time creeping up to 3 hours and 2 minutes in 2014, thanks in part to 4-hour American League East battles, it was no surprise that Major League Baseball was looking to shorten game times. In conjunction with its players association, the league announced this set of rules in February.

When the pitch clock as well as the amount of time between innings and pitching changes were enforced during the 2014 Arizona Fall League (an offseason circuit for some of the game’s top Major League prospects) 10 to 13 minutes were shaved off each game.

Big leaguers could probably tighten their belts by that much, too.

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