Welcome to our 2019 Red Sox in Review series. This is, as you can probably guess, where we will be reviewing all of the players who made at least a modest impact on the Red Sox in 2019. Every week day we’ll be deep diving into one player every day. For each edition we’ll describe the season in a sentence, look at the positives from the year as well as negatives, look back at our one big question from the season preview and look ahead to the 2020 season. We’ll be going in alphabetical order of the players on this list. You can look over that list, too, and drop a name in the comments if you think I left anyone out who should be mentioned here. Got it? Good. Today we focus on David Price.
2019 in One Sentence
David Price was very good for the first half of the year before cratering in terms of both performance and health over the second half.
Like I said, Price was very good for the first half of the season. In fact, I remembered him being good but he was even better than I remembered and even better given the context we continued to get all year with regards to the juiced ball. One of the big questions — in fact the big question we will talk about later — heading into the year for the Red Sox was whether or not Price would be able to carry his late-season success from 2018 into 2019. Early on, he very much did.
Price made 16 starts prior to the All-Star break and was borderline dominant in that time. He struck out 28 percent of his opponents, walked only six percent and most amazingly allowed only 0.76 homers per nine innings. For 2019 baseball, that is an incredible number. Batters over the first half hit only .235/.286/.362 for a .278 wOBA while pitching to a 3.24 ERA and a 2.85 FIP.
Adjusting for park effects, Price’s 67 ERA- (meaning he was 33 percent better than the league-average pitcher) in the first half was tied for 17th best among the 146 pitchers with at least 50 innings prior to the break. He was tied with Justin Verlander and even ahead of Gerrit Cole. Furthermore, this wasn’t just a bit of luck. It’s not fair to say any difference between ERA and FIP is all based on luck, but it’s worth noting you have to go down to 35th on that same leaderboard with Lance Lynn to find someone with a larger gap between ERA and FIP with the former being the larger number.
Part of the reason Price was able to be so successful was that he was missing bats at a higher rate than ever before. Obviously, the league’s trends get some credit for that, as batters are striking out more than ever with that rate getting higher and higher with each passing season. Still, Price struck out an even 28 percent of opponents on the year, just over a full percentage point higher than any other season in his career. Unsurprisingly, that came with an increase in swinging strike rate, with a large chunk of that coming in the strike zone. I’ve said before I believe this is the single best indicator of stuff, and Price’s swinging strike rate on pitches in the zone (per Baseball Prospectus) was 24th among the 141 pitchers who threw at least 1500 pitches on the season.
Along with the strikeouts, we have to go back to that first half and look at the cutter. Oh, that cutter. When Price’s cutter is working I think it is my favorite pitch on the Red Sox staff, which seems outrageous to say with some of the breaking balls on this roster. Price has this way to pinpoint that backdoor cutter to right-handed hitters, though, and it speaks to me. In the first half, Price leaned very heavily on this pitch and with great success. Over the entire season, the southpaw had a 27 percent whiff rate on his cutter while also inducing a .251 expected wOBA and a .292 actual wOBA (per Baseball Savant). It’s a very good pitch, but it wasn’t used as much later in the year for reasons we’ll discuss...in just a second!
The biggest negative for Price was very clearly his health. After being a golden example of durability for the majority of his career, he has now missed significant time in two of the last three years. In 2019 it was a wrist injury that cost him the majority of the second half and likely affected him even before he ultimately hit the shelf. The good news, if you are looking for some, is that it’s not an elbow or a shoulder, both of which are generally more feared in terms of long-term impacts. The bad news is that he turned 34 this past August and injuries generally don’t get less frequent as you reach your mid-30s.
When he did pitch in the second half, things got very ugly very quickly. His first start out of the break was solid enough, but then everything went downhill. Overall, Price ended up making only six starts in the second half, but in those six starts he pitched to an ugly 7.88 ERA with a 6.30 FIP that was better only technically speaking. His walk rate started to go way up and he started to get crushed on a regular basis.
To me, these two points with the injury and the second-half struggles go hand-in-hand. We talked so much in the second half in 2018 and during the first half in 2019 about how Price was finally adjusting to his age. No longer a guy who can rely heavily on a big four-seam fastball with good command, he started leaning heavily on the cutter and changeup. With the wrist injury, he could no longer effectively throw his cutter, forcing him to go back to that four-seam heavy approach. Clearly, it did not work and if he does not have that cutter in his arsenal things are going to go downhill quickly.
The Big Question
I think I already covered this enough, right? Before he got hurt, he did continue the referenced evolution to great success. Once the wrist started bothering him and the cutter had to be scrapped, things went downhill swiftly and loudly.
Price is going to be a major story for the Red Sox this winter. With the team deciding they need to cut payroll, his salary is one that they will likely look to get off their books. My personal view here is that it sure as hell better be more than a straight salary dump, because losing Price will have major effects on the success of the 2020 team. If he is healthy, I don’t think it’s out of the question that he is the best pitcher on the team just as he was in the second half of 2018 and throughout that postseason run. I acknowledge health is hardly a given at his age, but I just worry the focus is too much on his salary and not enough on his potential impact on the field.