ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – David Price addresses a common question about his unfamiliar start, the results different but his expectations the same. The left-hander and reigning American League Cy Young Award winner has faced a number of these queries in the past month – What’s wrong? What has changed from last year? – and he finds himself doing so again.
It is a recent Monday in the home clubhouse at Tropicana Field. Following a loss to the New York Yankees on April 23, the Tampa Bay Rays became the second team to lose the first five starts by a reigning Cy Young Award winner, after the Minnesota Twins lost in left-hander Frank Viola’s first seven appearances in 1989.
On Wednesday, after Price left a game at Tropicana Field against the Boston Red Sox after 2 1/3 innings because of left triceps tightness, his record stood at 1-4 with a 5.24 ERA. On Thursday, the Rays placed Price on the 15-day disabled list. The Rays are 2-7 in his starts this season, and questions continue to be asked about his struggle.
“I’m still expecting the same results that I got last year,” Price says on the recent Monday. “It’s just not happening right now. I’m still getting my work in. I still have a positive outlook.”
Winning a Cy Young Award is an achievement that extends beyond a player’s career, former recipients say, but there are potential risks involved the following year. The spotlight is brighter, attention is raised surrounding each start and the flow of a reigning winner’s season is studied in fine detail. Little, if anything, is overlooked.
The possible mental traps for a reigning Cy Young Award winner reveal the duality and fleeting nature of success, how positive moments one year can give way to frustration the next. Recovery often involves a re-commitment, a renewed focus, to what made a pitcher thrive the award-winning season. And that self-evaluation is not simple.
“I feel like I’ve had a target on my back for quite awhile,” says Price, who went 20-5 with a 2.56 ERA last year. “It’s nothing out of the ordinary for myself. It’s just something that I have to kind of get used to and just get better.”
R.A. Dickey understands the challenge. The right-hander won the National League Cy Young Award last season as part of the New York Mets with a 20-6 record and a 2.73 ERA. But he has experienced a slow start since being traded to the Toronto Blue Jays in December.
Dickey is 3-5 with a 4.83 ERA after nine starts following a six-inning, two-run, six-hit showing in a victory over the San Francisco Giants on Tuesday. He lost five of his first seven appearances, and he has surrendered at least four earned runs three times.
“There are certain traps associated with it, I feel like,” Dickey says of following a Cy Young Award year. “One is that there’s this need to repeat the same year that you had, the year that you won the Cy Young. That’s a trap you try to avoid, because so many things have to happen perfectly for you to have a year like that. You’ve got to get the right call in the right moment. You have to make the right pitch with the bases loaded. You have to have good fielders. You have to get the runs. So many things have to go your way. So if you put too much pressure on yourself to have the same kind of year, it can certainly weigh on you. That can make it difficult.”
Dickey says he is comforted by the fact that he has started slowly before. In 2011, for instance, he began 1-5 with a 5.08 ERA before finishing 8-13 with a 3.28 ERA. He says he knows he’s better than what his current numbers show, and his motivation comes from wanting to reach his potential, not an effort to reproduce a Cy Young Award-winning year.
“It can be a tricky thing, because you want to be that guy for your team, because you’re bringing other people into the fold,” Dickey says. “You want them to see what you’re capable of. You want to be that stalwart in the rotation that you were the year that you won the Cy Young. All those things are introduced in that next year. So you’ve got to do a good job of being in the moment with what you are trying to do and forget all the other stuff.”
Viola learned how to forget. He went 24-7 with a 2.64 with the Twins in 1988, his American League Cy Young Award-winning season. But he followed with an 0-4 record and a 5.26 ERA in six starts the next April.
Viola says instead of relaxing in the 1989 campaign’s opening weeks, he pressed and tried to accomplish more than he could handle. Soon, issues mounted: giving up home runs in key moments, surrendering damaging hits, allowing doubt to enter his mind. There seemed to be no stop.
“It took me probably a full month to realize, ‘You know what? I’m trying to do way too much. I’ve got to relax and get back to the way it was before,’” Viola says. “And that’s ultimately what happened. It’s very difficult … trying to stay within yourself.”
Viola finished with a 13-17 record and a 3.66 ERA in 36 starts in 1989. (He pitched 12 games for the New York Mets that year after being traded in July.)
His advice for Price: Control what you can, and trust in your ability.
“The one thing you cannot lose, no matter what, is your confidence,” says Viola, whose final season was in 1996 with the Blue Jays. “In David’s situation, they lost (James) Shields, they lost Wade Davis. … He’s got guys around him now, even after the trade of Shields, who can help him alleviate some of the pressure. Use those teammates and work with them. Before you know it, he’s going to put together a win streak.”
Meanwhile, a nerve injury in the throwing arm of former San Diego Padres left-hander Randy Jones affected him the year after he won the NL Cy Young Award. He threw a career-high 315 1/3 innings and went 22-14 with a 2.74 ERA in 1976, the first season a Padres pitcher won a Cy Young Award.
But Jones’ historic campaign came with a cost. He injured the nerve in his final start of the 1976 season, and he required surgery. Consequently, he fought the issue throughout 1977 and went 6-12 with a 4.58 ERA in 147 1/3 innings – his fewest since his rookie year in 1973 when he appeared in 139 2/3.
“It was a very frustrating, disappointing campaign in ’77, because I struggled with my arm strength and everything else,” says Jones, whose final season was in 1982 with the Mets. “It was just very, very frustrating. … How you are mentally (is important), then another thing is how you are physically in that scenario. I just kind of got bamboozled by the injury.
“The struggles don’t usually come up. I think everybody remembers the glory years, ’76. … It was just magical. It was a magical year for our fans and for me.”
Price is answering variations of the same question on the recent Monday, each trying to discover why one season can differ so much from the next. He talks about how his fastball’s velocity is short of where he wants it to be and that he must do a better job of jumping ahead of hitters early in the count. Recovery is a process, not a brief fix.
“Strike one and strike two are such big pitches, especially out of the first three pitches,” Price says. “So if I can just get back to doing that and putting the hitters into pitchers’ counts and get a lot of defensive swings, just a lot a weak contacts and good stuff like that as opposed to being (behind) 2-1, 3-1, 2-0.”
Study of Price will continue, largely because there’s intrigue in a break from the normal. This spring, Price was thought to be the bedrock of the Rays’ rotation, a role he has enjoyed for most of his six years in the majors. He was expected to provide stability in Shields’ absence and be the trusted presence who elevated himself last year.
But following a Cy Young Award-winning season includes no script. Like everything in baseball, as Dickey and Viola and Jones understand, the experience lacks predictability and is unplanned. Assumptions are waiting to be proven wrong.
“It was a completely different offseason for him,” Rays right-hander Alex Cobb says. “He didn’t get to do the things he wanted to do, preparation-wise. Then even in spring training, it was a different spring training for him. I felt like every game he was pitching, it was a bad field, raining. It just wasn’t a good preparation for the season.
“Things started rolling in a bad way, but he’s handling it great. He’s still the ace of the clubhouse.”
Price is still a clubhouse leader, but it remains to be seen how he will recover on the mound. As the questions continue, before carrying on with his routine, he has another thing to say.
“You just stick with it and believe that the positive outcomes will come,” he says. “That’s what I’m doing right now. I haven’t changed anything significantly from what I did last year. I’ve just got to make better pitches in big spots and take it from there.”