David Price

Price Check: The Clutch Is Real, and David Price Is Facing It

Before the season, pretty much anyone who was anyone predicted that the Red Sox would win between 80 and 92 games and fight for a playoff spot in the crowded AL East. As of today, the team is in first place and on pace for 92 wins. For the first time in about five years, the Sox have been doing exactly what they should have been doing pretty much all season long.

Big picture, this is good, because it puts the team in a spot to compete after two horrific seasons. If only you saw the preseason projections, then went on a total media blackout — maybe you walked the Earth, like Kung Fu — and returned today, you’d probably be pleasantly surprised where the Sox were sitting, but not shocked. Whatever analysis you missed in the meantime could easily be swept under the rug, provided you had a comically huge rug.

On a day-to-day basis, this season has seemed unstable. Even as the team has moved more or less in lockstep with its preseason projection, fans and analysts have freaked out over the team’s progress. In some ways it’s a sunk cost in dealing with a sport where even the very best teams lose 60 games a year. We can always freak out about something, even when things are going well.

Case in point: There were many calls for the team to fire John Farrell last week after the Sox lost a squeaker to Detroit, ending a six-game winning streak in the process. When “What have you done for me lately?” doesn’t extend at least three games into the past, it’s a sign that a bait-and-switch is at play. When the Sox win, it’s because they were supposed to win; when they lose, it’s because they’re fatally flawed. Our kneejerk reactions naturally trend negative in this way, but we can correct for them if we take an honest look at what’s going on.

When the Sox win, it’s because they were supposed to win; when they lose, it’s because they’re fatally flawed.

Outside of Farrell, no one has been a kneejerk target more often than David Price. His season has been the single best on-field manifestation of the bumpy ride the Sox have taken to first place. He’s been a big-money player capable of highs and lows, even as his underlying statistics have, virtually all season, showed him to be a top-flight big-league starter. He’s been so volatile that after a half-season plus of defending him, even I broke in my last Price Check column, asking two weeks ago if he was “okay,” not just as a pitcher, but as a human being.

In so doing, I broke my own commandment to stay patient through the long season, and Price has made me pay for it. His last three starts have been excellent, including last night’s 8-inning gem against Tampa, during which he allowed no earned runs (thanks largely to Andrew Benintendi’s insane, home-run robbing catch, but I digress). His ERA now sits at an even 4.00 with just over a month to play.

His Deserved Run Average is more than three-quarters of a point lower. At 3.18, it’s better than virtually every starter in the American League. He trails Corey Kluber, Chris Sale, Cole Hamels, Aaron Sanchez and Danny Salazar, among a couple others (Lance McCullers!) but by this metric he’s been great, and, as the name of the stat suggests, he deserves better than he’s gotten. But that might be about to change.

In that last Price Check, I proposed a hypothetical question: What would Price have to do to salvage this season? In it, I explored the redemptive nature of “clutch” performance, the more or less arbitrary metric which can stand in for real analysis among the narrative-spinning set. What would Price have to do, in the last month-plus or playoffs, for us to consider this year a success? Did he even have enough time left?

Last part first: He sure did. If he can push his ERA down to 3.50 or so, it seems likely that the Sox will make the playoffs, given the volume and quality of starts he’d need to make for it to happen. It would be what hackjob analysts call a “clutch” performance for the ages, and I should know. I’m one of them. I believe it’s simply a matter of record that ‘clutch’ performance exists, and trying to argue otherwise is a matter of semantics.

I will explain.

First off, I’m not sure the old saw about games counting more in April than they do in September holds up to any sort of scrutiny, even if it’s more or less true. An interleague game to begin the year cannot really have the same impact as a divisional game at the end of the year, given the impact a divisional game has on the standings and rival and the considerably larger amount of information we have about how the late season games fit into a team’s larger goal set.

In English, this is basically saying that late-season divisional games — which make up the near-entirety of Boston’s remaining schedule — can rightfully be considered to be  “clutch” games, insofar as the “clutch” label means anything, which I think it does. If you reject the idea of “clutch” situations, it really means you reject the idea of words meaning anything, in which case I’d argue monkey hypotenuse alabaster, garbage disposal.

In the likely event that sounded like gibberish, we can double down on the idea that words matter. Getting thus deeper into the semantic weeds, I’d argue that we’ve conflated our inability to predict “clutch” situations outside of our ability to predict “normal” situations with the idea that there are no such thing as “clutch” situations. This is nonsense. The entire months of September and October can rightfully said to be “clutch” situations, but our ability to predict them doesn’t derive from other “clutch” situations — it derives from someone’s whole body of work.

In the case of Price, whose career has been built on greatness and whose recent set of starts has reinforced his underlying skills, I’d bet that his “clutch” performance will be wonderful, simply as a function of his finally getting back to normal. If he does blaze a trail for the Sox to the playoffs, it’s possible that the “clutch” narrative actually overrates his performance, and presumes that he turned on the jets because he was under pressure, and not just because he’s good virtually all the time. In that case, we’ll have another slight correction to make. We’ll cross that bridge if and when we come to it, and I sincerely hope and think we will get there.

In the meantime, let’s not fire Farrell, please.

Photo by Bob DeChiara/USA Today Sports Images

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