Although I am certainly among those that believe last year’s team has become underrated due to their failure to come through in the postseason, there is no doubt whatsoever that the 2018 team is a completely different beast compared to the 2017 squad. There is also no doubt whatsoever that the offense is what creates the massive chasm between the two rosters. It’s easy to boil it all down to one player — that player obviously being J.D. Martinez — but it’s really a whole new group, albeit with many of the same faces. It’s a new approach at the plate and a new feeling around this group. There is a legitimate and justifiable feeling that this team can get going against any pitcher in baseball, and that’s a hell of a feeling to have about a team heading into the postseason. We didn’t feel it last October. Of course, the feeling around this lineup is not the only difference between this year’s team and the one that lost in the ALDS in 2017.
Although the offense got the headlines after last season, and the bullpen has seemingly needed one more addition since the start of last winter’s free agency period, the rotation is what really came back to bite them in the postseason last year. Chris Sale got shelled, which couldn’t be predicted, but what happened after could. Drew Pomeranz was obviously great for most of last year, but he was noticeably slowing down towards the end of the year. Doug Fister pitched over his head for a while, but he was much more inconsistent down the stretch. Rick Porcello never got it going in 2017. They didn’t have much beyond Sale, and that was a killer in the playoffs.
This year, it’s different, and while Porcello has been better than last year and Eduardo Rodriguez adds a new element, David Price represents the biggest difference. He’s been a gamechanger in 2018, and specifically over the second half in Sale’s absence. Although the lefty was very good in October last year, it wasn’t in the rotation. He will be this year, and despite his history in the postseason Price is a major positive on this roster moving forward.
As I said, Price has been particularly great in the second half of this season, and really since Sale went down with his injury Price has stepped up to lead this pitching staff and make the ace’s absence at least a little less noticeable. Sale originally hit the disabled list after his start on July 27, and has made just one start since that point. Price, meanwhile, has made seven starts in that span. and he’s averaged over seven innings per start with a 2.03 ERA with 48 strikeouts to just eight walks in 44 1⁄3 innings. He’s also held hitters to a .199/.254/.286 line over that time, and he’s done it against potential playoff teams like the Yankees, Astros, Indians and Phillies as well as the surging Rays.
Watching Price do his thing, there’s really not much to be worried about moving forward besides his history, and there’s nothing we can do about that right now. At the moment, he’s looked as good as he has in years as he shifts into a new portion of his career. As has been noted in numerous locations at numerous points in this second half, Price has changed his style and is getting away from being the kind of guy who simply attacks with his fastball all game long. That worked when he threw in the mid-90s, but now that he’s gotten older he is willing to rely on his cutter and changeup much more. The results have, obviously, been phenomenal.
If you’re looking for two sings for how well Price has pitched, look at how he’s done after falling behind in a count and how often he’s gotten off on the right foot in an inning.
The first pitch of an at bat, as we’re so often told by commentators during games, can change the course of the plate appearance. Falling behind or getting ahead changes the entire strategy for a pitcher and alters the confidence level of the man with the bat. Thus, starting out 1-0 can be a major hurdle for a pitcher. It hasn’t been for David Price this year. Opponents are hitting just .179/.286/.288 after getting a first-pitch ball from Price, and that .573 OPS is the third-lowest in baseball among 139 pitchers who have fallen behind 1-0 at least 150 times. This comes back to Price’s command. His new style requires him to work the edges of the zone, and that means he will fall behind time to time, but he has enough confident that he’ll hit his spots moving forward that he doesn’t feel a need to come back to the middle. It goes without saying that he’s been right to have that confidence.
Coming back in individual at bats has been huge for Price, but perhaps the biggest difference between this year and previous seasons with the Red Sox has been how he’s begun individual innings. This season, he’s held opponents to a .218/.256/.378 line to leadoff innings, and that .256 OBP is the 17th lowest among the 131 pitchers who have started at least 100 innings. I don’t have to explain why it’s so important to start an inning off with an out, and this mark is significantly improved upon last year when he allowed a .382 OBP to lead off innings. For what it’s worth, his OBP to lead off innings in 2016 was .280. Unsurprisingly, the top of this leaderboard includes names like Max Scherzer, Sale and Clayton Kershaw, and it’s been a major reason why Price has been so successful.
People are looking for reasons right now to show why this Red Sox team will be like the last two and fail early in the postseason. They certainly have some valid points, and given all of the talent in the American League no possible way this October can play out would be a total shock. That being said, if you’re looking for reasons why this team can be different, don’t forget to include David Price. It’s hard to look past his part follies in the postseason, but it becomes a lot easier when you look at what he’s done this year. For the first time in a couple years, the Red Sox have a legit 1-2 punch at the top of their rotation, and it could make all the difference.