It’s been nearly seven months now since David Price first took the mound as a member of the Boston Red Sox. Oh but those were halcyon days. The Red Sox had their ace, and he was going to lead them back into October.
Well, October happened. Briefly, but it did, and that’s kind of a binary thing given the nature of the playoffs. David Price, however, certainly didn’t lead them there. He was atrocious to start, finally looked like David Price for a while there, then finished fairly weakly, including another rough playoff outing in a career that has already seen more than its fair share.
Here are some truths about David Price:
He wasn’t that bad! Over the past few years, a 3.99 ERA stopped carrying the weight it once did. But 2016 was different for a lot of pitchers. As it happens, playing in the East, in a year that saw more offense than usual, Price’s 3.99 actually grades out solidly above average. It’s a 114 ERA+ which, believe it or not, is basically the median for his career (115). It’s very much in #2 starter territory, which would be fine if the Sox weren’t paying him $31 million a year.
He wasn’t that good! As Price was busy self-destructing early in April, Red Sox fans clung to the hope that his peripherals told more truth than his ERA. They did...but by year’s end, there’s not all that much separating those peripherals from Price’s disappointing results. While Price was preventing runs better late, his strikeouts dropped dramatically, from 10.13 per nine innings in the first half to 7.50 in the second. All told, he finished the year with a 3.60 FIP—his worst mark since his rookie year, and far off the pace of 2015. Things don’t get all that much better when adjusting for home run rate, either, though Price’s was unusually high.
The red flags aren’t that huge either. Price’s numbers aren’t what we’d hope in any way. The strikeouts are lower than in 2014 and 2015. The walks are higher than in 2013 and 2014. The velocity is down at its lowest point (though some of that is from unusually extreme outliers early on). But all those downward trends are fairly small. And in fact, Price’s strikeout rate? Above his career average. Walk rate? Solidly below. The ground ball rate was under by less than a percentage point.
And here’s where context comes into play. This was an off year for Price, but Red Sox pitchers struggling early seems to be a thing these days for the guys who come in with the highest expectations. Rick Porcello was quick to note how familiar he is with Price’s situation, and we all know how that’s turned out. John Lackey was a serious letdown in 2010 before his 2013 revival. To go back even further, Josh Beckett was a bit of a disaster in 2006 before pulling it all together in 2007. Maybe it’s random chance, but when someone is brought in from outside and asked to anchor the rotation, it doesn’t always click right away.
This doesn’t mean a down year from Price is not concerning. Some guys never quite recover—you have to give Daisuke Matsuzaka an awful lot of credit for an 80.6% strand rate in 2008 to really pretend he ever put things fully together. Price wasn’t as bad as Matsuzaka was in his first year, and the fact that he identified a mechanical issue early and put it away after some distressing results helps the narrative. But we can’t just shrug this off as first-year jitters anymore than we can declare it the beginning of the end.
Normally, a player with this sort of season would get something like a C on the report card. Price contributed, so he passes, but he certainly did not impress. It’s the contract that really changes everything. Let’s say that David Price’s 2016—the 3.60 FIP, not the 3.99 ERA—was representative of his true talent level for the year, rather than a downward blip. If that’s the case, it’s not likely to head in the other direction much during the rest of his contract, while the downward shift is certainly going to be there. Even if we assume a much more gentle decline from 2016 to 2017 than we saw from 2015 to 2016, we’re still looking at a guy pulling in 1-A dollars for 2-B production. Cite $/WAR figures all you want, nobody is offering up $31 million for a 3.60 ERA pitcher, much less for so many years.
Eventually the market might get there, but by the time it does, Price will likely be below that level in this scenario. He almost certainly won’t be opting out, either, leaving the Red Sox with a consistent underperformer taking up a big chunk of their budget until the early 2020s. It’s worth noting that this wouldn’t be terrible if Price can stick as a #3/#4 type into the later years. It would be unfortunate, but more a matter of inefficiency than outright waste.
On the other hand, that’s also not the pessimistic view. It’s slightly to that side of realistic, yes, but not truly alarmist. If you’re looking for that scenario, well, it involves another huge step down in every department, followed by another, and eventually the Red Sox bailing on him entirely a few years before his contract even runs up. That would be following the trend line set by 2015-to-2016, and while that’s not all that likely, it does follow from a reasonable interpretation of 2016 between his dropping peripherals and some velocity concerns.
That view, of course, is balanced out by the optimistic side, wherein Price is tremendous for the next two years having gotten this out of his system as those other top arms did before him. He opts out in this scenario, sure, but two years of an ace and one year of a #2 would be a fine return for the Red Sox’ investment.
If Price can’t make good, it will not be for a lack of effort. He’s not the loudest guy on the mound or in the locker room (I am reminded of J.D. Drew), but those around him say he’s not at a lack for a competitive drive. He always comes to camp in-shape and ready to go. Many pitchers are able to adjust as they start to lose a bit to age, and if that’s what’s happening here, I’d put money on David Price at least being able to avoid the awful scenarios. Even without his strikeouts, Price’s ability to locate should serve him well with some modifications to approach.
If you’re scared after 2016, I can’t blame you. Boston’s issues with big contracts are a bit overblown given how guys like Lackey, Porcello, and Hanley have managed to pull out of their tailspins. it does feel like they’ve been burned quite a bit, and Price has the ability to be the biggest albatross of the bunch. Given how bad things could be, at this point I might be happy with a 3.50ish ERA in 2017 just to arrest the downward momentum. But we shouldn’t be content with that. David Price was brought in to be an ace, and that’s what we should be able to expect. That the limits of acceptability could have shifted so dramatically in one season goes a long way towards showing just how far this season was from what it was supposed to be.
Oh well, still better than Greinke.