Saturday, March 14, 2009

TPC 2009 Top Pitching Prospects Leftovers: David Price

So, I put David Price in at #5 instead of #1 like just about everyone else in the world is doing. I must be an idiot or something, right?

Maybe I am.

As much as I've written about Tommy Hanson, I've probably written more about David Price. I don't dislike Price, nor do I think he's a bad pitcher. In fact, I think he is very talented, and deserves most of the accolades that people have been pouring on him for the last 2 or 3 years. He was a great college pitcher, and so far has been a very solid minor league pitcher. In fact, after considering all the facts, I think Price could one day be a great major league pitcher, and might snag a Cy Young or 2 along the way.

But I don't think the problem here is whether Price is a very good pitcher or not. Most people are already convinced that he is. I think the real problem here is whether Price is or will be a great pitcher or not. At the surface, it seems like an issue of semantics. What I think of as very good, others may consider great, and vice versa. But when it comes to stats, performance level, and overall production, I think there is a definite difference between very good and great. For instance, becoming a millionaire would be a very good thing, but becoming a billionaire would be great.

So, before we move on, let me make it clear that I think Price could become a great pitcher in 3 to 5 years. I'd even put the odds at 2 to 1.

And that brings us back to the point of this post. If Price has such great potential, why the #5 ranking? Why put him behind Brett Anderson, Trevor Cahill, Brett Cecil, and Madison Bumgarner? The answer, simply put is because I have reason to believe that all 4 of them are either currently better than Price, and/or have better odds of becoming a great major league pitcher.

As for Cahill and Anderson, I've covered the subject before. But to quickly review, here's a table comparing Price's AA stats (his largest professional sample size) to Cahill, Cecil, and Anderson, as well as a few other recent pitchers.

All of those pitchers have had a lot of success in their short careers, but of the the ones that have pitched at the major league level, the difference between the pitchers at the top of the list and Price is fairly significant. As I said before, Price has been very good so far, but if Tim Lincecum and Joba Chamberlain are true elite pitchers, at this point in time, we can't really make a solid argument for putting Price on the same level with them. There's plenty of reasons to put him in with very good pitchers like Zach Greinke (and yes, Greinke is a very good pitcher, even if he does pitch for Kansas City), but anything beyond that isn't really warranted.

However, Anderson has already put in elite level performances, and at 20 years old already compares well to the guys at the top of the list. Cecil has also done very well, and Cahill has essentially matched Price's performance level even though he's 2 years younger. If Cahill begins 2009 at AA ball, I think he could put up an average of 11 strikeouts per 9 innings with 3.5 walks, and a ground ball rate between 60% and 65%, putting him in the upper half of the list above.

To take this one step further, here are the major league stats for some of the above pitchers as they compare to what Price is expected to do in 2009 (I threw in Tommy Hanson's projection as well just for fun).

Good. Very good in fact. But not great.

I guess what I'm saying is, if Tim Lincecum, Joba Chamberlain, Francisco Liriano, and Zach Greinke were all about to make their major league debuts this year, how high would you rank Greinke compared to the other 3? I don't think it would take more than 30 seconds of consideration before he got the #4 slot.

That's how I see the situation between Cahill, Anderson, Price, and Cecil right now. They've all received top notch reviews from baseball insiders, they've all done very well in the minors, and they all have tons of potential. The only thing separating them is the numbers they've put up, and the age at which they did so.

To add a bit more perspective, here's a recent quote from Rays manager Joe Maddon concerning Price and the reason he'll likely start the season at AAA coming out of Spring Training:

"If he just blows people away, things obviously can change," Maddon said. "We can change our thinking. … (But) we still consider him in the development process. … If you were watching the playoffs last year, you see him as the finished product, but we don't necessarily see it there yet."

Sure, the Rays have a lot of pitching depth, but so do the Yankees, and there's really no question as to whether 23 year old Joba Chamberlain is going to get a spot in the rotation. If Price was an true elite pitching prospect, at 23 he'd be more than ready to take a spot in the Rays rotation, and Maddon wouldn't be saying things like, "...we don't necessarily see it there yet."

I felt pretty confident putting Price behind Cahill, Anderson, and Cecil, but I felt like the biggest stretch was putting Madison Bumgarner ahead of him as well. While Bumgarner has a very high ceiling, his experience level and pitching repertoire is far inferior to Price's. He was fantastic at A ball last year, and had one of the best seasons for any 18 year old in recent memory, but he still has a long way to go, especially when you consider the fact that he pretty much only has a fastball right now with a breaking ball and change-up under development.

However, when I started taking an in-depth look at Bumgarner, something that his A ball manager Andy Skeels said about him made me realize something about the kind of growth curve Bumgarner is on. "I've never seen a player grow that fast and quickly. What he did was staggering." It's a minute detail, but it speaks volumes about how quickly Bumgarner could become an extremely dominant pitcher.

Consider this. Prior to August 2008, Bumgarner used 2 pitches during games. A fastball and a slider. With just those 2 pitches he was very good, striking out about 26% of the batters he faced, while walking just 4%. In August, he began throwing a change-up, and his strikeout rate shot up to 41%. Obviously, his change-up made a huge difference, but it gets better. You would expect a young pitcher to increase his walk rate while trying out a new pitch, but Bumgarner's August walk rate actually dropped to 2.6%. For the month, his ERA was an amazing 0.28.

If Bumgarner never develops another plus plus pitch, and he has to rely on his fastball and an average breaking ball with an average change-up (the worst case scenario), his control and raw talent would put him on roughly the same development curve as someone like David Price, and by the age of 22, Bumgarner would be able to match Price's performance level. His future would be limited, but he would still be a serviceable big league starter.

But, if Bumgarner develops a couple of plus pitches to compliment his fastball, given his current skill set, I think he could easily surpass Price in terms of pure talent. Mix in another 3 or 4 years of experience, and Bumgarner has all the makings of an elite young pitcher.

So, when it came to ranking Bumgarner, I could have gone the extremely conservative route, but after seeing how quickly he mixed in a change-up and how well he handled A ball at the age of 18, I had to put him ahead of Price. It was a decision based off of 50% projection, and 50% performance. I'm usually not very comfortable relying so heavily on the future (and unforeseeable) development of a pitcher, but there are too many indications that Bumgarner is actually on a very impressive development curve.

In short, I put David Price in at #5 on my list because I thought there were 4 other pitchers with more promising futures out there. It doesn't mean I think Price is a bum or a hack. He'll be good. Very good. But when it's all put in perspective, I think Anderson, Cahill, Cecil, and Bumgarner are going to be just a bit (or a lot) better.

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