Bryan Price roundtable
Pitching coach Bryan Price comes up as a frequent topic in comments and emails, with opinions ranging from hate to seeming indifference. So we at USS Mariner Labs started to toss this around as a roundtable topic, and present for you our discussion.
This is Price’s sixth year as the full-time pitching coach of the Mariners. He was the roving minor league pitching coordinator from 1998-1999, which meant that he was responsible for the instruction of all pitchers at all levels of the minors. In practice, though, he was taking over Stan Williams’ job by the end of 1999, before Williams was sent into exile so that Price could take over full-time.
Price won the trust of Lou Piniella, a manager who had chewed up and spit out every pitching coach he’d had memory. Many of those coaches went on to have success with other organizations, though none of them was particularly remarkable.
Price convinced Piniella of the need to pull pitchers early, in particular, in order to keep them fresh for their next start. But Piniella also trusted Price to schedule out pitcher rotations, and eventually turned over management of the staff almost entirely to his pitching coach. This was lauded at the time: Piniella, in finally acknowledging he did know how to run a rotation or bullpen effectively, turned his greatest weakness into a strength.
Here’s the last few Mariner teams before Price came on:
MAX AVG AVG #GS per Category TEAM GS NP NP NP PAP PAP STRESS I II III IV V 94 112 11095 150 99.1 953355 8512 85 56 16 20 12 8 95 145 14094 160 97.2 1100839 7591 78 74 21 24 18 8 96 161 14014 135 87.0 314142 1951 22 99 24 19 11 1 97 162 15883 155 98.0 1051543 6491 66 76 30 30 14 9 98 161 14357 142 89.2 919247 5709 64 67 27 29 9 12 99 missing data
Team pitcher abuse, after Price took the reins:
MAX AVG AVG #GS per Category TEAM GS NP NP NP PAP PAP STRESS I II III IV V 00 162 15497 133 95.7 138171 852 8 100 31 29 1 1 01 missing data 02 missing data 03 162 16550 129 102.2 239102 1475 14 53 58 46 5 0 04 162 16489 133 101.8 318617 1966 19 63 53 37 8 1 05 137 13331 126 97.3 122077 891 9 71 35 30 1 0
(unfortunately, Baseball Prospectus doesn’t have pitch-by-pitch data for 99, 01, and 02, so I can’t go back that far)
That’s a dramatic decrease. It’s worth noting as well that while Price brought down the number of extremely high-pitch outings, that didn’t result in a reduction in the number of pitches he got out of his guys in every start.
It’s interesting that Melvin rode his pitchers a lot harder than Piniella. In fact, this is a good time to mention that Melvin was interested in taking Price with him to Arizona. However, we should note that Melvin was a poor evaluator of talent in players, so you may wish to discount his opinion of any coach.
Melvin also produced the years that did the most damage to Price’s reputation. Madritsch’s unconscionable overuse in meaningless games certainly didn’t prevent that injury that took him out this year. Where was Price in all this? Did he give up on rational pitch limits, or was Melvin (as amazing as this sounds) less reasonable about listening to him than Piniella?
This year, Hargrove-Price appears to be back to the far safer strategy. It’d be reasonable to point out though that they don’t have much in the way of horses that could be ridden deep into games.
Now, as to talent, one of the complaints about Price is that both Meche and Pineiro have stagnated instead of turning into aces. While I the Melvin-Price failure to see that Meche was wearing down badly in his first year back was horrid, there are not two aces held back by a manager. Pineiro’s problems defy easy analysis and Meche’s shoulder injuries make it impressive they’ve gotten anything from him.
It’s true that Price doesn’t have Mazzone-like miracle stories, where we can point to pitchers who were awesome here and sucked elsewhere, but what other pitching coaches do? There have been complaints that Price is particularly bad with mechanics, and I will fully admit I’m unqualified to evaluate it and unwilling to say that based on what little I know about it.
Don’t wait for me on this one. I’m not sure how to evaluate a pitching coach, either.
But you make a mean quiche!
Attempting to evaluate people whose “performance” is inextricably linked to the performance of other human beings is darn near impossible. The goal is to evaluate Bryan Price as a pitching coach, but we lack any way to extract from the Mariners team pitching data while Price has been employed just how much the results of the pitchers reflect Price, the pitcher himself, the minor league coaches, the manager, or some other influence. In most circles, the most widely accepted way of evaluating coaches is to simply judge them by the performance of the pitchers they are given. This is a results based analysis, and one that is full of flaws. But what are our alternatives? We have none, really. If we had hundreds of hours of minor league game tape and the ability to compare and contrast a pitcher from what he was before he got to Safeco with how he is now that he’s been around Price on a regular basis, we might be able to do some kind of before/after analysis and assign a percentage of the changes to Price. But, that’s just not possible, so we’re stuck with what we have: the performance of the M’s pitchers, and hoping that we can somehow get in the ballpark with a wild guess as to how much of that the pitching coach is actually responsible for.
So, acknowledging that this is a flawed way to evaluate Bryan Price, or any coach, and muting our conclusions to correspond with our limited ability to evaluate the data we have, what follows is the history of the Bryan Price pitching staffs, and how they have performed relative to reasonable expectations through the years.
Team ERA: 4.50.
ERA+: 101 (percentage above league average when adjustments are made for park factors)
Overachievers: Paul Abbott, Jose Paniagua
Underachievers: Jamie Moyer
The M’s had a league average staff with a bunch of pitchers who should have made up a league average stuff. Moyer had the worst year of his Mariner career, but the team got effective work out of spare parts like Abbott and Paniagua.
Team ERA: 3.54
Overachievers: Aaron Sele, Joel Pineiro, Arthur Rhodes, Norm Charlton, Ryan Franklin
Underachievers: Brett Tomko
The year where everything went right. They got career years from almost everyone in the bullpen. Joel Pineiro went from a middling pitching prospect to death-to-right-handers and posted a ridiculous ERA+ of 207 in his rookie season. Norm Charlton came back to life and was an outstanding middle reliever. With the exception of Brett Tomko, everyone achieved an expected level of performance or better. It was a banner year for the pitching staff.
Team ERA: 4.07
Overachievers: Shigetoshi Hasegawa, John Halama
Underachievers: Freddy Garcia
Freddy began his yo-yo career, alternating good starts with starts bad enough to get him labeled Truly Terrible Freddy. Pineiro and Moyer were excellent, though. The team got some solid work out of John Halama after finally kicking James Baldwin to the curb. Overall, the staff was a bit better than league average.
Team ERA: 3.76
Overachievers: Ryan Franklin, Gil Meche, Shigetoshi Hasegawa, Julio Mateo, Rafael Soriano
Underachievers: Freddy Garcia
The famous nobody-misses-a-start year. The entire rotation pitched the whole season, and while Freddy and Meche were simply league average, the other three starters were excellent. Meche, however, was worked way harder than he had a right to be, and he was pitching on fumes by the end of the season. The bullpen got remarkable debuts from Soriano and Mateo, both pitching lights out from the day they arrived with the team. When Arthur Rhodes is your worst reliever, you’re doing pretty well with the bullpen.
Team ERA: 4.76
Overachievers: Bobby Madritsch, Ron Villone, Scott Atchison
Underachievers: Gil Meche, Joel Pineiro
The wheels come off. Moyer shows his age, Meche and Pineiro fail to develop, Freddy gets traded, Ryan Franklin writes “I Miss You” cards to Mike Cameron on a daily basis, and the bullpen goes to crap. The pitching staff is betrayed by a weak outfield defense that was a 180 degree change from what they had been used to, and the effects are significant. The team does get terrific performancees from another pair of rookies, and Ron Villone thrives in his role as a middle reliever. But everything else is a disaster.
Team ERA: 4.45
Overachievers: Felix Hernandez, Eddie Guardado, J.J. Putz, Ron Villone
Underachievers: Gil Meche, Joel Pineiro
Sensing a theme yet? Gil Meche and Joel Pineiro take another step back, both being replacement level pitchers. The M’s get another phenomenal debut from a rookie arm. As talented as Felix is, he’s outpitching anyone’s realistic expectations for him right now. Guardado has excelled with half an arm. Putz has developed into a solid reliever after a middling minor league career, and Ron Villone was one of the best left-handed relievers before he was traded away.
Since Bryan Price took over as the pitching coach, the M’s staff have experienced several significant trends:
1. The bullpens have been among the best in the league, having received career performances from journeyman middle relievers and impeccable debuts from arms fresh up from Triple-A.
2. Nearly every Triple-A arm who has come up has pitched as well (or better) as could be expected.
3. Those same Triple-A arms almost all got hurt.
4. Gil Meche, Joel Pineiro, and Brett Tomko, all praised at one point in time as being elite young arms with mid-90s fastballs, have struggled to perform as anything other than replacement level arms and have been consistent disappointments.
That’s the data we have. Again, we’re trying to evaluate one man on the basis of his level of control over the performances of other humans, which is so hard to do its laughable. But it’s all we’ve got. So what are the results?
The Case For Bryan Price:
1. During his tenure, he’s had consistent, predictable success turning veteran mediocre relievers into all-stars. He has consistently been able to oversee one of the best bullpens in the league despite acquiring players with spotty track records that were not in high demand.
2. Arms coming up from Tacoma have been impact performers from the day they got to Seattle. The usual adjustment period for rookie pitchers simply hasn’t been an issue for the Mariners. When they’ve brought an arm from Tacoma to Seattle, that pitcher has, far more often than not, been a quality major league pitcher from day one.
3. The pitching staffs have, in every year except 2004, been league average or better, even after adjusting for Safeco Field. The M’s pitching has been the strength of the organization during Price’s time as the Mariners pitching coach.
The Case Against Bryan Price:
1. Gil Meche, Joel Pineiro, and Brett Tomko were all highly thought of early in their careers. All have flamed out during his time on the clock, and he has been unable to turn any of the three into the pitchers that the general consensus says that they should have become.
2. The M’s have continued to experience an inordinarily high amount of attrition of their young arms. While we cannot pinpoint an exact cause, the M’s have had to deal with numerous arm injuries with many of their most promising pitching prospects, and the organization has not even acknowledged that there could be a problem with the way the arms are being handled.
Essentially, that’s what the data tells us. There’s positives and negatives that cannot be refuted or waved away. During his time on the job, the pitching has experienced highs and lows. He’s got some feathers in his cap and some headshakers that make you want to punch him in the nose (Madritsch’s workload in 2004, especially).
Realistically, your opinion of Bryan Price as a pitching coach is going to come down to how much influence you believe Price has on the two negatives in his column. If you feel that another pitching coach would have been able to get more out of Meche, Pineiro, and Tomko, and you think that other pitching coaches would have been able to put a system in place to prevent the injuries to Soriano, Madritsch, Atchison, Blackley, Meche, Pineiro, et al, then you probably aren’t a big fan of BP. If you’re going to hold him responsible for the injuries and the lack of development of the Meche/Pineiro/Tomko unholy trinity, that’s a pretty tough thing to overcome, and you’re conclusion will almost certainly be that the M’s would be better off with another pitching coach.
That’s not a view I hold, however. I’ve never been on the Gil Meche bandwagon, and the expectations for him after labrum surgery have been wildly unrealistic. No one has ever recovered from a labrum surgery and pitched any better than Gil Meche has. Joel Pineiro has his own set of issues that, again, I don’t believe are related much to the pitching coach. If anything, I believe Pineiro outperformed his reasonable expectations his first two years, setting the bar too high in peoples minds, and setting himself up to be labeled a disappointment as he returned to his real level of talent. No one has been able to figure out Brett Tomko, and he’s now firmly established as a journeyman 5th starter.
The injuries, with the exception of Madritsch and Meche being overworked at the major league level, don’t have any real signs that point to Price or the coaching staff doing any particular thing wrong. As the injuries have occurred on his watch, we have to hold him somewhat responsible, but I can’t lay the blame entirely at the feet of Bryan Price for not fixing a problem that no one on earth has the answer to.
The data leads me to a moderate conclusion: Bryan Price has his strengths and weaknesses, but in relation to the 30 other human beings performing his job for other major league clubs, he’s an advantage for the Mariners. He’s an above average major league pitching coach, and the team is better for having had him around since 2000. He’s not an irreplaceable piece of the organization, and if he moves on, I won’t weep for the loss of a genius, but the team could certainly do worse than Bryan Price. Just look back at how terrible this team developed pitchers in the 20 years before he got here.
As you mention, one of the problems with evaluating Price is that he’s inseperable from the pitchers he had. For instance, let’s take Freddy Garcia. Price was clearly frustrated with Freddy’s work habits during the funk, even making some modest statements about it, which is extremely rare for Price.
Even if we assume that Garcia had the energy of a narcoleptic banana slug and no work ethic of any kind– not even a bad one, and that that was the cause of Garcia’s troubles, it was still Price’s job to find ways to motivate him. There are pitching coaches who are better at this part of the job, I think it’s clear — but those guys also tend to get into fights with their staffs, burn out teams and management and get fired quickly, and so on.
Yet at some point it really is the fault of the player. Like take a player with a torn labrum. You can give them a rehab program and book them appointments with therapists, but if they don’t care and want to goof off and play video games, at some point you’ve done all you can.
The big thing here is how you interpret his Chicago stint, where he’s clearly one of the best 30 pitchers in baseball this year. Is being reunited with a manager he’s close with, a fresh start in a new town, getting married and (we’re to understand) setting aside childish things been a boon? Were there greater circumstances at work than just Price failing to get a bored pitcher fired up?
I don’t know, and we can’t know. I’m inclined to think that there’s a lot beyond Price’s control there. It’s like… Carlos Guillen talking about how being traded to Detroit caused him to re-evaluate his approach, work harder, take more batting practice, listen to his coaches, and bam, he’s a MVP candidate. Was it even possible that he would or could have emerged while here, with Freddy, with the staff in place?
Ahh, Freddy. You know, there’s this misconception that since the trade, he’s been better than he was when he was here.
Freddy, 2004, Seattle:
107 IP, 3.20 ERA, 3.68 Fielding Independant ERA, 2.7 BB/G, 6.9 K/G
Freddy, 2004, Chicago:
103 IP, 4.63 ERA, 4.15 Fielding Independant ERA, 2.8 BB/G, 8.9 K/G
201 IP, 3.75 ERA, 4.05 Fielding Independant ERA, 2.5 BB/G, 6.2 K/G
In his Seattle career, Freddy walked 8 percent of the batters he faced and struck out 18 percent. In Chicago, he’s walked 7 percent and struck out 19 percent. His ERA in Chicago is higher than it was in Seattle.
Freddy is what he is; an enigmatic innings eater capable of providing quality innings and being frustratingly inconsistent. His time in Chicago hasn’t shown that to be any different than his time in Seattle.