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One Big Question: Is David Price still an ace-caliber pitcher?

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The answer will have a huge impact on this season

Boston Red Sox Spring Training Workout Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

Welcome back to the One Big Question series here at Over The Monster. For those who weren’t around for last year’s series or simply forgot what it entails — there’s a lot going on in the world today, so don’t be ashamed! — here’s a brief reminder. Every day, Monday through Friday, for the next eight weeks we’ll profile a new member of Red Sox 40-man roster. Rather than simply going through a simple profile of their overall game and what they offer the team, we’ll focus on the one question that could very well dictate how their season will go in 2018. In order to keep the order objective and avoid side conversations like ranking the players on the roster, we’ll go straight down the roster in alphabetical order by position. In other words, we’ll go by how things are ordered here. If you miss any editions or would like to look back on some of last year’s, you can see all of them here. Today, we’re looking at David Price.

The Question: Can David Price still pitch at an elite level?

There are a lot of questions around a lot of players on this Red Sox roster heading into 2018, but perhaps no one has more to answer than David Price. The big signing prior to the 2016 season hasn’t quite lived up to the hype and (to a wildly unfair degree in this writer’s opinion) has been on the receiving end of some ire from the fanbase. As we look ahead to the season, there is plenty to be curious about for Price. Does he enjoy playing in Boston, and does the answer to that question at all influence his decision of whether or not to opt-out after this season? Is he going to be able to stay healthy after dealing with elbow issues throughout the 2017 season? As he enters his age-32 season, is prime David Price still somewhere in there? All of these questions, or at the very least those last two, all combine for the ultimate question and arguably the key for the Red Sox’ year. Is he still an ace, or at least a high-level number two behind Chris Sale?

It can be easy to forget now that Price has been in Boston for two years and has underperformed relative to expectations for both of those seasons, but he was really freaking good of the vast majority of his career. From the start of his career through the end of the 2015 season, he pitched to a 3.09 ERA (126 ERA+) while striking out 8.6 batters per nine innings and walking 2.3 batters per nine while making 30 starts in four of five seasons during one part of that run. He also won a Cy Young during that run while finishing second on two other occasions. He was really good. Then, he came to Boston in 2016 and while he wasn’t a total disaster like some would have you believe he did allow a lot of hard contact and was more pretty good rather than really great as we expected. Of course, that followed up with last season where he battled injury all year and ended the season as a dominant reliever, which was rad but also weird.

Boston Red Sox Spring Training Workout Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

As we look forward to the upcoming season and hope for something closer to his old self, there are a few key developments to watch for. The first and most important, to me, is his fastball command. Price is something of a rare starting pitcher in that he’s essentially a two-pitch pitcher with a fastball and a changeup. He does mix in a breaking ball here and there, but it’s rare. It’s also a bit disingenuous to call him a two-pitch guy since he has a few different fastballs, but either way it is that pitch that impacts everything he does. When Price is at his best, he is hitting all of his spots with the four- and two-seam fastball and blowing it by batters for whiffs and inducing weak contact. The prime-version of Price very rarely saw him missing in the middle of the zone with that pitch, but that was probably his biggest issue in that 2016 season. It seemed the command was better in a smaller sample size in 2017, but it also wasn’t quite at his old level. If he’s showing command and confidence in the fastball — and it’s still hitting the mid-90’s with some consistency — that is a massive first step.

There’s also the matter of his control, which has been a major part of his success over his career, particularly in his late prime. When Price first came to the majors he was able to rely more on pure stuff and had more average control than anything special. As he got older, though, he started consistently walking fewer than two batters per nine innings, a trend that continued into that 2016 season. Last year, his walk rate ballooned by his standards and he walked just about three batters per nine in 2017. PECOTA, Baseball Prospectus’ projection system, sees that continuing, but I’m not sure I buy that. It seems likely that his elbow issues contributed to these newfound control issues, though the possibility still exists that this is also an age-related issue.

Speaking of the elbow, this is also going to play a role in whether or not Price can get back to something close to his old self again. Obviously, it’s not breaking news that health will affect the performance of a pitcher, but it needs to be mentioned here. The good news is that Price was electric out of the bullpen after returning late last season. It’s also good news that he has a self-proclaimed magic elbow. (He says unique, not magic, but magic sounds much better.) On the other hand, those bullpen outings came in short stints and we have no idea how the elbow will hold up over 200 innings of work.

At the end of the day, what kind of pitcher is will have a huge impact on the Red Sox season. Their rotation should be good, but there is also a chance they could be truly great. That version includes Chris Sale being Chris Sale and David Price being pre-2016 David Price. It’s far from a guarantee that this will happen, and one could argue it’s closer to a longshot, but the good news is we know what it looks like. If he can get through camp without elbow issues and comes out with a strong fastball that hits its spots on a regular basis, we may be seeing the closest version of the old Price we’ve seen in a Red Sox uniform. If we do see that, we could also be seeing a truly special rotation.