It’s been a roughly two year quest, but the Red Sox have finally acquired their ace. After signing David Price to a seven-year, $217 million contract, they have their first legitimate top-of-the-rotation arm in the post-Lester era, and arguably their best arm since Pedro Martinez. By most objective measures, Price has been at least in the top five pitchers in the game over the last few years, and there’s an argument to be made that he’s in the top-two, behind only Clayton Kershaw. So, there’s no negatives here, right? Even in Boston, there’s no way fans can find a way to complain, right?
Well, unless you’ve never experienced the Boston fan base — or sports fans in general — you know that’s never going to be the case. It seems there are two main arguments against the Price deal that I’ve heard. The first is the fact that it’s an expensive, long-term deal that the Red Sox may be regretting in four or five years. Marc covered that argument on Wednesday. The other argument is that, while the Red Sox acquired a great pitcher, it’s a guy who has not been able to perform well in the postseason.
To be honest, I kind of thought that we as a society were past this. Seemingly every sport has guys that are dogged for their lack of playoff success, and every time they come out and shut everyone up at some point. Peyton Manning was a playoff bum until he wasn’t and led the Colts to a Super Bowl title. LeBron James never had the chops to win in the postseason until he did and he led the Heat and Cavs to championships and finals appearances seemingly every year. Alex Rodriguez couldn’t ever hit in the playoffs, until he could and he went on a great run in 2009 en route to a championship. Someday we’ll learn that this is a silly concern, but apparently we haven’t gotten to that point yet, so let’s take a deeper look at what Price has done in the playoffs over his career.
To be fair to his critics, Price really has been bad during the postseason in his career. This isn’t a situation where a bad win-loss record taints his legacy. He’s tossed 63-1/3 postseason innings over his career with a 5.12 ERA. This isn’t just a case of one horrendous start skewing the numbers, either. Price has made nine postseason appearances since his rookie year in 2008, and he’s allowed at least three runs in eight of them.
However, as bad as that run has been, there are plenty of that show this not being the real Price. For one thing, his peripherals in the postseason are still outstanding. In those 63 playoff innings, he has 59 strikeouts compared to 12 walks, or 8.4 K/9 and 1.7 BB/9. That’s good for a 4.9 K/BB, and while that’s not quite as good as his 5.8 K/BB over the last three years, it’s just about even with his performance in 2015. On top of that, his postseason K/BB would slot into the top-26 among all pitchers with at least 63 innings in 2015, essentially tying with NL Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta.
We know that, in samples this small, peripherals are going to tell a better story than ERA roughly 95 percent of the time, and Price’s peripherals in the playoffs say that he’s the same pitcher he is during the regular season. His velocity could be another clue for change, since the best argument for a player being measurably worse in the postseason is them fatiguing down the stretch. However, Price’s velocity has stayed steady through he later months of the season just about every year in his career, so there’s no reason to believe he can’t hold up over the 162 game grind.
Next, I thought it would be interesting to look at his individual outings to see if I can find a pattern of any sort. First of all, this is the part where I mention his 2008 run, when he dominated out of the bullpen as a rookie including games against the Red Sox. So he showed his ability to handle the pressure there. After that, his game log is filled with mostly mediocre games, but there are a few interesting things that jump out. For one, he had to face the 2010/2011 Rangers a lot, and that lineup was great. Obviously all playoff lineups are fantastic, but that one had some particularly scary bats. Price also had a couple of starts in his career, including one in 2015, where he was dominant through six or so innings before hitting a rough patch. That’s not to say you’re happy with that in he moment, but he’s looked like his old self for the majority of playoff games before.
Price's contract won't stop future Sox spending
Price's deal is a risk, but it's one the Red Sox can afford both now and in the future.
Finally, I thought it would be fun to compare Price’s postseason numbers to some of the great pitchers of the last 15 or so years. It appears that he’s poised to join a pretty good list of pitchers who have been awful in the playoffs until they weren’t. Dave Dombrowski made the Justin Verlander comparison, and it’s an apt one. The former Tigers ace had a 5.57 ERA through his first eight postseason starts, allowing at least three runs in seven of them. Then, he put together great runs in 2012 and 2013, shoving that narrative aside forever. Clayton Kershaw is more of a contemporary to Price in terms of playoff struggles, but he sort of shook that off last year. Finally, Andy Pettitte is known as one of the premiere clutch pitchers of all time, but it wasn’t always like that. The former Yankee had a 5.63 ERA through his first ten postseason appearances. Obviously, he was able to turn that around and become a seasoned playoff veteran.
We don’t have any guarantees that Price is going to be better than he's been in the postseason, but every piece of evidence points to him being great. He’s been one of the best pitchers in the game in the regular season, and that’s a considerably larger sample than his 63 postseason innings. His peripherals have stayed steady in October, as has his velocity. Maybe he’ll continue to struggle in these weird, small samples. Changes are, however, that David Price is poised to join a long list of great players who have sucked in the postseason until they haven’t.