Chris O’Meara / AP
I found it kind of funny last night. The way some of the Rays fans in the crowd at Tropicana Field began to slowly turn against David Price. It was odd the way they were beginning to cross that hypocritical line that you invade when you think you might have duped by someone or something. They were in that zone I like to call, the See-Saw Zone. And it is not like have never been that way before here in sunny Florida. As fans of a team that has only celebrated one winning season, we can be totally critcial of anything at anytime within the sport.
We have done it before to all of our local favorite teams, the Tampa Bay Bucs have gotten it ever since they stopped making the playoffs. And the one year absence of hockey in Tampa Bay made a huge legion of fans forget about the Lightning on the ice even if they did win the top prize,the Stanley Cup before the strike put them on the shelf for a season. And now it seems that the Tampa Bay Rays fan are starting to do it to the best pitching prospect to come through our minor league system. The catcalls in Rightfield after the third inning irritated me to the bone. People seem to have ADD anymore about the positive accomplishments of any athlete, much less one of their own.
Another adage I sometimes use to show this kind of behavior is the old Janet Jackson song, “What have you done for me Lately?”. It is actually that sense of entitlement and self ownership that the crowd gets to show their pleasure and displeasure at their own discretion towards a bevy of things Rays related. So did it bother me that people began to actually say David Price’s name out loud that maybe we plucked the cherry tree too soon and he was not ripe. Nope.
Did it bother me that they are now questioning their own sense of baseball as self-taught scouts. Who knows if they are right or wrong about the southpaw that seemed to hold the franchise together last season at key moments. He did not start a game, but his presence on the mound in the end of the game left an impression of superiority to the masses. But what really got my goat is the inflated expectations by the Rays that they threw upon this young pitcher the moment his name was chatted on the radio or typed into a computer. The kid pitched a combined 12-1 in the Rays Minor League system in 2008. But all some of the Rays fans remember is a short stint in the Bullpen where he looked like the second coming of fellow southpaw Scott Kazmir to the team.
People forgot the reality that he jumped from Class-A to the bench in the major leagues in less than a full season. That is usually not the case with a young pitcher you are counting on for your future. MLB Scouts commonly say that you never really get a true evaluation and potential of a young pitcher until he has thrown about 200 innings. Well, if you combine his 2008 totals (109.2 innings), plus his Rays 2008 totals (14 innings) you still do not get a good 200 innings out of the guy as a young professional pitcher. And in that scenario, you have to admit to yourself he will be a work in progress at the major league level.
Sure he as the explosive stuff on the mound and the awesome ability to pitch above his head at times, but he is also trying to parlay a new pitch (change-up) into his arsenal that needs time to mature and develop fully to be effective. So far in 2009, with his number from Durham ( 34.1 innings) and the Rays ( 30.1 ) he is still 26 innings short of that basic measuring point in his development ( 174 innings). And is one of the key elements that bothered me when they first brought him up this season. Sure his placement and velocity of his slider and his fastball might be above average, but his change-up is a work in progress and is improving daily. But such a pitch can be used as a glaring weak spot for teams to be patient and sit on pitches waiting on Price to throw them early in the game.
And that might be a perfect explanation of what happened last night when the crowd and the Philadelphia Phillies dissected him like a frog in Biology class. They basically poked and prodded the young pitcher fouling off his fastball and slider and were giddy when he finally offered up his breaking stuff. The Phillies 6 runs and 4 hits along with a costly error by Evan Longoria was the example of in-depth scouting and having the Phillies hitter wait for Price to make a pitching mistake.
And he did make a few in the first inning, but it was not all his doing. Even thought the team behind him was in an odd defensive funk, he did finally get it all under control after the first inning before again stumbling in the fourth inning. And when the Phillies again took him apart for 4 runs. That is when I started to hear the voices behind me question if we brought him up too early ,or if he was over-rated as a pitcher. These were the same souls who cheered his first win, and also shouted encouragement to him as he was warming up by the Bullpen this same night.
Have we all gotten that fickle now in Tampa Bay by one short season of Price showing he has the right stuff. There is going to be ups and down with Price this year just as we have seen with Jeff Niemann. And people really do have to be a bit patient with both of them. Price is starting to figure it out at this level, but some people in the stands want instant gratification and do not have the precious time to wait for an improvement or knowing that better things are coming for the Rays starters.
But I think Price so far has been given the same luxuries that Scott Kazmir was given in 2004 when the Rays brought him up to learn the art of pitching at the major league level. Last night was not pretty, but then again, the Rays starters this season have been as up and down as the new Manta roller coaster at Sea World in Orlando. There have been numerous twists and turns by everyone on the staff, even James Shields and Matt Garza. But this is also a series where the two teams have ample and extended scouting on all phases of the game. You to guess the Phillies have not only done their homework on the Rays, but know this is a series based on a lot of pride for the Rays. This series could turn into a defining moment in the 2009 season.
Maybe the Rays were a bit hasty when they began the Price dog-and-pony show the day he was drafted. Price has been hyped since day 1 when he first signed his contract on August 15, 2007 with quotes telling us he will be here fast and to expect him to be with the team soon than later. “We ar
e thrilled to add a player of David’s caliber to our organization,” said Rays Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman told MLB.com. “Not only was he the most outstanding amateur player in the country this year, we see him as one of the best pitching prospects to come out of the draft in some time. In addition to his remarkable talent, David’s character is exemplary. He is an important building block and a potential upper-echelon starting pitcher for many years.” Can you say pressure cooker on high heat!
But then Price when he was interviewed right after being selected by the Rays with the top pick in 2007 showed some of his maturity and frank honestly on the acceleration process through the Rays farm system. “The difference between Major League hitters and college hitters, there is not even a comparison,” Price said during a conference call with Bill Chastian, who is the Rays correspondent for MLB.com. “Being able to pitch in the Major Leagues, you really have to have something about you. To go from college and breeze through the Minor Leagues is a rarity. You have to be careful with that.”
Most people cheered when the Rays finally promoted pitcher David Price to the major leagues later than expected in 2009 knowing that the future of the Rays organization was right on their doorstep. I am one of those people who thought he might be the wrong guy at the wrong time. For the record, I was more into thinking Wade Davis deserved a chance to flaunt his stuff and was more developed at the time, but that is why I am not a Rays scout. I am not against Price in any way, I just feel he needed more time to gel his pitch selection and control in the minor leagues before he got thrown into the MLB melting pot.
I was hoping for a post All-Star promotion for Price to give him more time to refine his craft and also show he had done everything he could at the Triple-A level. That has been the knock on him that he is a great pitcher who throws strikes, but can be picked apart by extending at bats until a mistake crosses the plate. But that is also the tale of hundreds of young pitchers in the league. If you are patient to wait for a mistake, you will be rewarded. And that same evaluation was apparent last night. He truly got picked apart by the Phillies hitters.
It might have been easier for Rays catcher Dioner Navarro to yell out the signals because the hitters were looking for a certain type of pitch (breaking ball) every time they went to the plate, and they were patient for all 4.1 innings of Price’s night. But when he did finally come off the mound and was replaced by Rays reliever Winston Abreu, most of the crowd did not stand and cheer for him. Instead most sat on their hands beyond the eyesight of the dugout. They guy did his best that night, but the wishy-washy crowd would not have any of it. Rays fans need to understand that art of patience again, or they might accidentally ruin this young pitcher by sending the wrong message to him.
It might have been the shock and awe of Price getting beaten around like this from a team coming in with a 6-game losing streak that unsettled the crowd. But lost within the stadium was the fact the Phillies are a monster on the road with a current 24-9 mark, which is best in the MLB this season. It is not often a team has a better road record than a home record and is still over .500. Price might have been more a victim of an aggressive team hungry for a win,but the Phillies did their best impersonation of a Sharks feeding frenzy when they tore into the young pitcher time and time again in the first inning. Price did threw 40 pitches in that inning, and 30 of them went for strikes by because of the score, any effectiveness went out the window.
That proves he was hitting some of the spots that Navarro set up for him behind the plate, but the Phillies also stayed patient knowing the young southpaw would make a mistake. Rays fans had better get used to roller coaster rides by the young pitcher. t is common to have a topsy turvy time of it your first season. But for some reason it felt in the stands last night that people were looking at him throwing on the mound like the 2009 Rookie-of-the-Year without even throwing 50 innings yet this season.
Scott Kazmir went through the same learning curve and has become the Rays winningest pitcher (51 wins). Kazmir also has thrown over 818 strikeouts in his 768.2 innings as a Rays starter . Jame Shields, Matt Garza, and Andy Sonnanstine have all been battered and bruised before on the mound. But with them, the Rays faithful have given them time and space to grow into the pitching styles. Price not only deserves the same time and space, but he has proven he can win, and that he can pitch at this level. The big question is how long until they either join him or cast him off as a used relic.
It is sure to be a rough 2009 for Price, but if it was so easy, all of us might have had a professional career. The art of pitching at this level is one of the hardest things to master in sports. There are too many variables to account for on every pitch to bring about perfection or even a chance to try to achieve perfection. There is a reason we celebrate Perfect Games and No-hitter with such zeal. They are not given moments to people who settle or do not give total effort, but are classic examples of learning the craft and putting it all out there every time on the mound.
Price will be fine. He will begin to get it and become a great star in this lineup if we just give him the needed time to gel. The guy is only in his rookie year and people were calling for the Bullpen in the first inning. What was especially upsetting was watching a young fan tear up a sign with Price’s name on it in the sixth inning. He looked frustrated and upset his guy did not get it done tonight. But also adding to the problem was his parents bickering and complaining about Price. It was not the right example to show to the kid first off, but it was not right to throw Price under the bus for great scouting and preparation.
Price might still get a chance to be selected for the 2009 Rookie-of-the-Year that most people in the sport anointed him with in Spring Training. But even if he doesn’t the guy is giving his all and doing a job most of us would trade almost anything for to try every 5 days. I have to admit, the first inning took a lot of the air out of me last night too, but I also know that this team can do anything if they motivate themselves. Price is going to be around for a long time here in Tampa Bay. We should show more positive crowd reactions to the guy, not chant for the Bullpen after the first inning. Maybe in five days when he is again on the mound against the Florida Marlins the fans will give him the chance to again prove he is here for good.