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David Price's new curveball grip keeping opponents off balance in 2015

David Price cashed in his old curveball for the knuckle curve last season and his success with it may be the difference between a good season versus a great one.

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

David Price has been everything the Detroit Tigers have needed in 2015. With Justin Verlander on the disabled list, Max Scherzer residing in Washington, D.C. and Anibal Sanchez struggling, the Tigers have needed ace-like performance from Price. With the exception of two starts, he has been excellent, posting a 3.15 ERA despite giving up eight earned runs in one start during the "Yankees in the Snow" affair back in mid-April. In many ways, Price appears exactly the same pitcher we saw in 2014, both with the Tampa Bay Rays and with the Tigers after last year's trade deadline deal. And yet, it feels like he's capable of more.

Coming off another season of elite innings totals, it's a good sign that Price's fastball appears as hot as ever. PitchF/X has his four-seam fastball clocked at an average of 93.7 miles per hour, slightly up from the 93.3 mile-per-hour mark in 2014. Considering that many of his starts so far have come in chilly Midwestern conditions in April, this is a positive, indicating that his huge innings totals haven't exacted a toll on his fastball. And, either as a result or by design, Price is throwing his four-seam fastball more than ever, and with even more success than last year based on its plus pitch value.

Season FA (Four-seam) FT (Two-seam) FC (Cutter) CU(Curveball) KC(Knucklecurve) CH (Changeup)
2014 17.1% 39.6% 13.8% 5.6% 3.9% 20.0%
2015 41.6% 23.7% 10.7% 0.0% 6.0% 17.8%

Hitters are doing their best against Price when they manage to fight off his overpowering fastball. While both his four and two-seamers have been excellent this year, we've also seen a lot of hitters foul off numerous pitches, driving Price's pitch count up early in games. This has forced Price to come in over the plate deeper in counts, either with more fastballs, or with the cutter or changeup. Opposing hitters have had more success against Price's secondary pitches, especially the changeup. At the very least, they are putting the ball in play more often, instead of striking out the way they did for Price last season. This is where Price's new curveball may come in as a significant piece of the puzzle.

For years, Price has used what's known as a spike curveball grip. A typical curveball involves the thumb and middle finger to generate topspin, as the pitcher rolls his wrist in a snapping motion to produce spin. The spike curveball adds the point of the index finger "spiking" the ball, allowing the pitch to be thrown harder with the same spin rate. The knuckle curve, Price's new pitch, substitutes the first knuckle of the index finger instead of the fingertip, allowing for a harder curveball while maintaining the high spin rate. The advantage of the spike or knuckle curve is that its higher velocity and later break make it more difficult to recognize out of the pitcher's hand. The spiked index finger may be a key tell for a batter that the curve is coming, and the more deceptive grip of the knuckle curve could help in that regard.

According to Price, he found the spike grip difficult to control at times. He began experimenting with a variation of the knuckle curve last season to get better control and sharper late break. Price then spent time this past offseason with Oakland Athletics ace and fellow Vanderbilt alum Sonny Gray, learning Gray's knuckle curve grip. For the past two seasons, Gray has possessed one of the best curveballs in the game. Upon experimenting with Gray's grip and approach, Price felt much more confident that he could re-tool his curve into an important piece of his arsenal.

Price has good velocity separation between his fastball and the cutter and changeup, but with the two secondary pitches sitting in the same velocity band, he has essentially been a two-speed pitcher thus far. Putting the curveball in hitters' heads makes it even more difficult to time the mid-90s fastball and high-80s cutter/changeup combination. Having to consider a third speed as a hitter turns a chess match into that 3-D variant featured on Star Trek.

As he heads toward free agency, Price still has the arm, the command, and the stamina to be the best pitcher in the game. He is going to command a fortune on the open market, and the Tigers' chances to re-sign him early are quickly coming to an end. If Price can build on his recent success and turn the knuckle curve into a sharper breaking offering more reminiscent of Gray's version, this could turn another great year into a classic one, akin to his 2012 Cy Young Award winning season.