Welcome to Over the Monster’s One Big Question series. For those unfamiliar, this is something of a season roster preview where over the next 40(ish) (week)days we’ll be taking a look at each player on the 40-man roster prior to the season. If changes are made to the roster between now and Opening Day, we’ll cover the newly added players. Rather than previewing what to expect in a general sense, the goal of this series is to find one overarching question for each player heading into the coming season. We’ll go one-by-one alphabetically straight down the roster, and today we talk about David Price.
The Question: Will David Price continue with the evolution we saw in 2018?
The 2018 season is one that we are going to remember for a whole lot of Red Sox players in the foreseeable future. That makes sense, of course, since they won 108 games and went on a historic tear through the postseason. A historically great team is going to have a lot of memorable seasons, of course. I don’t know how much I actually believe this — Nathan Eovaldi, Mookie Betts and J.D. Martinez have a case as well off the top of my head — but there’s a chance that down the road it will be David Price we remember the most for that season. He wasn’t the best player on the team in either the regular season or the postseason, but he changed the narrative surrounding him seemingly in the blink of an eye. As late as early October many, including many of us here, were unsure he’d ever be able to pitch in the postseason and/or against the Yankees. He turned that narrative on its head, pitching lights out after his first postseason start and being a huge part of the World Series run. If he finds himself in the Hall of Fame someday — a not-impossible outcome — we could look back at 2018 as the year his career took that final hurdle.
The thing is, if he does end up in the Hall of Fame, it means that he continued to pitch very well in his 30s. Price was, of course, amazing for much of his 20s, but he wasn’t so dominant that he could waltz into Cooperstown on the back of the first half of his career. And, if he does pitch that well into his 30s, it means he’s learned to pitch with diminishing stuff. Up until around the halfway mark of the 2018 season, he hadn’t taken that step yet. There was a real possibility he was going to continue along that path, but then he flipped a switch. Price started to look like a brand new pitcher, shifting up both his repertoire and his overall style, and the result was pure domination.
Over the first half of the season, Price was fine but still a little disappointing based on his contract. It’s possible our expectations have always been a little too high, but that’s what happens when you sign a $30+ million per year contract. By the All-Star break, the veteran lefty had pitched to a 4.42 ERA with 109 strikeouts in 108 innings with 34 strikeouts, all of which is solid. However, he was getting hit hard and often, allowing 18 homers with a .756 OPS. In the second half, the flip switched. After the break, he pitched to a 2.25 ERA in 68 innings of work, striking out 68 with 16 walks and only seven strikeouts while allowing an OPS of just .586. It was a stark difference, and one that you’d be able to tell even without looking at the numbers and just watching him pitch. Most importantly, the shift correlated perfectly with when the team lost Chris Sale for most of the second half, giving Boston the ace they appeared to be lacking.
The big difference was pretty obvious to see, too. We all likely remember prime David Price, even before he came to the Red Sox. Boston had to face off against him many times over the years with Tampa Bay, Detroit and Toronto. Back in those days, the big lefty had a huge fastball and could command it as well as anyone in the game. It was really all he needed, and while he mixed in some secondaries here in there he mostly leaned on variations of that heat. Obviously as he’s gotten older, the velocity and general effectiveness of his fastballs aren’t quite as great as they were in his prime. His command is still there at times, and when he’s at his absolute best even at this age his command is enough to give him solid outings. Still, he needed to add some sort of new wrinkle if he was going to be as effective as we’d hoped in the latter portion of his career.
That’s exactly what he did in the second half of the 2018 season. Now, Price didn’t move completely away from his fastballs in the second half, nor did he really come close to doing so. He’s likely never going to get to that point, and his fastball is still good enough that he can still use it in the right situations. What he did, though, was move it back down to a more manageable 40-45 percent rate of usage between his four-seamer and two-seamer. As late as June it was almost at 55 percent, per Brooks Baseball.
Instead of the fastballs, Price started using more changeups and cutters, and the results were a blast to watch. The changeup was a revelation in the second half, and he slowly started leaning on it more and more as the year went on. By September he was pushing a 30 percent usage rate on the offspeed pitch. The offering was easily his best in terms of inducing whiffs with a rate more than double that of his curveball, which was second in whiff rate.
The changeup was his most effective pitch and continued to be so as the year went on, but just aesthetically speaking the cutter was my favorite. You could often tell what kind of start Price was going to have last year by how his cutter was going early on, and in the second half his cutter was working to perfection in the second half. The pitch didn’t get a ton swinging strikes (just over nine percent, per Brooks Baseball, compared to over 20 percent for the changeup), but it was hard to square up and resulted in a lot of looking strikes and foul balls. When Price is locating that pitch on the outside corner to righties as it breaks right back over the plate, it is virtually impossible to do anything as a batter.
How Price continues to utilize this style of pitching moving forward, and what kind of tweaks he continues to make as the league adjusts and his stuff continues to change, will be key for his future. The Red Sox know they aren’t getting prime Price anymore, and when they signed his big contract they knew it wouldn’t last for most of his contract. They had faith he was the type of pitcher who’d be able to evolve and keep pitching well into his 30s. It took the lefty some time to make the proper adjustments, but we saw what later-career David Price can be over the second half and in the postseason of 2018. If he keeps laying off the fastball and leaning more on the changeup and cutter, the Red Sox are going to get at least a few more good years from the veteran.