Premise: David Price is an underrated starting pitcher. That might seem silly on its face. Price has been an American League All-Star for three years in a row. In 2010, he finished as the runner-up for the Cy Young award. He made an immediate postseason impact as a rookie for the 2008 Rays, and he throws the ball 96 miles per hour. I'm pretty sure everybody understands that David Price is good, but I'm less sure people understand the challenges he's faced along the way. I know I didn't, until just a little while ago.
Price has settled in since becoming a regular member of the Rays' rotation four seasons ago. Over that span he's posted a 3.31 ERA, and over that span minus the first season he's posted a 3.05 ERA. Working off of a high-velocity fastball from the left side, Price has generated big strikeouts while remaining reliably durable. Since 2010, he's thrown more innings than Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, and Mark Buehrle. And so many other guys! Price, clearly, is among the game's better starters, and a major reason why the current Rays are hanging in the playoff race.
It's probably enough to acknowledge that Price is very good, but for those who are concerned with rating players exactly right, Price hasn't just put up terrific numbers -- he's managed that while facing a tougher challenge than most. Maybe while facing a tougher challenge than all. This is where we get into matters that aren't talked about very often.
There are two things, and the first we'll talk about has to do with platoon splits. As you know, righty pitchers are better against righties than lefties, and lefty pitchers are better against lefties than righties. Price is no different. But for his career, Price has faced more than 76 percent righties. Price hasn't frequently been able to pitch with the platoon advantage, and while that goes for a lot of southpaw starters, it still makes things more difficult. Right-handed pitchers tend to end up with matchups that are a lot more balanced.
Secondly, and far more importantly, is the matter of talent of opposition. Baseball Prospectus very conveniently makes available statistics of opposing batters. For example, if we set a minimum of 100 innings, we can see on BP that no one faced weaker competition in 2011 than C.J. Wilson, at least according to OPS. Right behind him were Bruce Chen and John Lannan.
We find David Price at the other end of the spectrum. Price has been a regular with the Rays since 2009. Here is where his opposing-batter OPS figures have ranked, out of all pitchers with 100 innings. The higher the ranking, the higher the combined OPS.
2009: 7th, out of 126 pitchers
2010: 6th, tied, out of 147
2011: 1st, out of 144
2012: 1st, out of 79
No regular starter faced batters with a higher combined OPS than David Price did in 2011. The same is going for Price again in 2012. The two seasons previous, Price wasn't No. 1, but he was awful close. And while I understand that OPS isn't a perfect offensive statistic, and while I understand that OPS isn't park-adjusted, it does well enough. David Price has been facing opponents who're a good deal better than the league average, and he's still had his success.
Unsurprisingly, the top two offenses in baseball over the last four years, by OPS, are the Yankees and Red Sox. Over the last four years, Price has made 27 percent of his starts against the Yankees and Red Sox. For the sake of comparison, Felix Hernandez has made just under 11 percent of his starts against the Yankees and Red Sox. About 10 percent for Justin Verlander. About 11 percent for Jered Weaver. About 23 percent for teammate James Shields, who of course is also high on the quality-of-opposition leaderboards.
Not that it's all about the Yankees and the Red Sox, but they figure significantly in what we've been talking about. They're a major reason why Price has faced such challenging batters. When they talk about whether a potential trade target is an AL East-level pitcher, this is kind of what they mean -- things are different in the East, because the opponents are tougher. Not all of the time, but some of the time, and therefore on average. It's a rough division for a pitcher on the Rays, Blue Jays, or Orioles, and no one's really had it harder than David Price.
I don't know how to factor in Price's quality of opposition. It's not as easy as applying a certain park effect. But it has to matter, and so if we're looking to average everything out, or if we're looking to compare Price to another pitcher, his actual numbers are presumably worse than they would be if he'd faced normal competition. Now, on the other side of things, Price has always called home a pitcher-friendly ballpark. That's helped to keep his numbers shiny. But people are a hell of a lot more familiar with park effects than they are with opponent quality, and so I do think Price is underrated for this reason alone. To some degree. I don't know to how many degrees.
David Price is an outstanding starting pitcher; that, you know about. His numbers are fantastic, and since breaking into the Rays' rotation he's posted as good an ERA as Cole Hamels, and as good an FIP as Yovani Gallardo. Had Price been pitching in another division, you might think of him more highly than you already do. Price has been navigating a rough road, but he's been driving the right car.