In his fourth full season as a Major League starter, everything came together for Rays left-hander David Price. He topped even his best previous season, a 2010 campaign that saw him finish as the runner-up for the American League Cy Young Award.
So while there were cases for not only the other two finalists but some other candidates as well, Price's time has come. The Rays have had two AL Rookie of the Year Award winners, and now they can add one of the two biggest awards handed out by the Baseball Writers' Association of America: the Cy Young.
Price's steady, consistent excellence was invaluable to his team and is magnified by the high level of competition he faced and the stress under which he delivered it. He was rewarded Wednesday with the American League's highest pitching honor.
"That's why I play the game," Price said. "I don't do this for the paycheck. I don't do this to be an average big leaguer. I want to leave my mark on baseball. That's why I do it. I said that in an interview back in 2008. I said, 'When people think about baseball and people think about pitching, I want them to think about David Price.' That's the way I've always been."
Price put up the kind of numbers that lead to season-ending hardware. He led the AL in ERA at 2.56, in wins with 20, and ranked sixth with 205 strikeouts. Price allowed a mere 16 home runs, the second-lowest total of any AL hurler who topped 200 innings. He was fourth in the league in WHIP.
In his age-26 season, Price continued his incremental improvement to turn in his best year yet. And the previous ones were all pretty good.
"He had a good run in 2010 for the Cy Young, but I think he was more of a thrower that year than a pitcher," said teammate James Shields. "And even though he had good numbers that year, I think that this year he was a much better pitcher as far as being a pitcher and knowing how to pitch and knowing himself as a pitcher. I think he definitely deserves it."
As Shields noted, it's not just the totals, it's how Price put them up. He was dependable, turning in one good performance after another, every five days. Price tied Justin Verlander for the lead in quality starts (six or more innings, three or fewer earned runs) with 25. Stretch the requirement to seven innings, and he led the league all by himself, with 22.
That, in itself, is surely not enough to justify a Cy Young Award for any pitcher. But it's an indication of what it is that Price did so well for the Rays. He delivered quality innings, in bulk, start after start. Price did it for a team that had a hard time scoring runs, so every time he took the mound, he knew that even three or four runs might mean defeat.
And Price did it in the AL East, which even in a somewhat down year remained one of baseball's most daunting divisions.
That shows up in the numbers. Measured by opponents' OPS, Price faced the fifth-toughest slate of hitters of any AL starter this year (according to Baseball Prospectus). The aggregate OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage) of the hitters who faced Price was .763, more than four percent better than the overall AL average of 731. Verlander ran the 15th-toughest gauntlet among qualifying starters, Jered Weaver 29th of the 36 pitchers who tossed 162 innings in the Junior Circuit.
So game in and game out, against one of the toughest schedules in the league and with minimal margin for error, Price gave his team a strong chance to win. He helped an effective bullpen succeed by limiting the number of innings that Tampa Bay relievers had to pitch. And Price was reliable all season long, from Opening Day all the way to the end.