When the Red Sox made the decision to sign David Price to a seven-year, $217 million deal during the 2015 offseason, the process was sound. Sure, they were signing a pitcher who was about to enter his age 30 season, however, that pitcher had been consistently among the best starters in baseball from 2012-2015. Price had shown the typical signs of pitcher aging, seeing his fastball velocity decline from an average of about 95 to 93, but with his elite command this hadn’t been an issue. By DRA, Price was a slightly better pitcher in 2015 than he was in 2012, even with that diminished velocity. Price had adjusted to this decline by switching to a strategy of throwing a greater percentage of breaking and off-speed pitches than he was in 2012. He was doing what many elite aging pitchers do — he was adjusting his repertoire to fit his current skill set.
Price has always been a remarkably durable pitcher as well, which was another reason the team didn’t hesitate to sign him entering his 30s. From 2012 to 2016, his first year with the Red Sox, he led all starters with 1096.1 IP. While his ERA suffered a bit in his first year with the Red Sox (due to allowing a career high 30 home runs), the underlying numbers were still elite, and his pitch mix looked consistent with a successful David Price. A 3.99 ERA wasn’t ideal, but coupled with elite ratios and a league leading 230 IP, there was no reason to be anything but optimistic. Then 2017 happened.
The year started off poorly from the jump, with forearm soreness in March becoming an elbow strain by April. After returning from the DL, Price was not himself. He hit the DL again with elbow inflammation in late July. Red Sox fans and the team feared the worst — Tommy John surgery. MRIs came back clean on Price’s elbow, and he returned to pitch an electric postseason as a reliever. Optimism was abound entering 2018, but if you looked closer about how Price had been using his pitches in 2017 and 2018, maybe we should have known better.
From 2012 to 2016, Price had a repertoire which was roughly 70 percent fastballs — a variation of sinkers, cutters, and four-seamers. Price also threw his curveball about 10 percent of the time while mixing in his changeup for the remaining 20 percent. Over those years, the fastball variations had dipped in usage along with the curveball and the changeup gaining usage, but even still all those pitches were being thrown with regularity. Since 2017, the fastball usage rose to about 80 percent, with the curveball and changeup seeing reduced usage. So far in 2018, Price has used his changeup just three percent of the time and is throwing his changeup 17 percent of the time. Price has essentially become a pitcher without a breaking offering.
Can Price succeed like this? Yeah, it’s very possible that he can, but it’s a lot more difficult to do so, because it makes him more predictable and he needs to have pinpoint command to make it work. He did so in his last outing against Baltimore throwing just one curveball. It’s also the opposite of what most pitchers do as they age and lose velocity. If you look at the Brooks Baseball page for Zack Greinke or Justin Verlander, you’ll see that most elite aging pitchers throw more breaking and off-speed pitches to account for diminished velocity and a slimmer margin for error on hard pitches. He is currently averaging about 91.5 mph on his hard pitches. Price is trying to defy this traditional wisdom and is not having success. As you can see, his DRA has risen drastically since he began throwing more hard pitches. Currently, he is not the pitcher the Red Sox thought they were getting.
After this year, Price has the opportunity to opt out and test the market. It’s no secret that he’s had an adversarial relationship with the Boston media, and has said his share of bizarre things. Price wants to be loved, but doesn’t seem to be able to get out of his own way when he speaks, or pitch well enough that what he says doesn’t matter. It will be a hard decision for Price to make, as he will need to consider what he’s worth on the market and how much his happiness is worth to him. If he continues pitching like he is, coupled with his diminished velocity, then he isn’t likely to find success. Price needs to throw his curveball more and increase his changeup usage if he wants a chance of proving to other teams he is still valuable. This is his only hope to leave Boston without having to have a very awkward conversation with a talk show host someday about why he walked away from all that money. If he doesn’t change and decides to stay, we are going to hate this contract more and more every year.
Header photo by Winslow Townson — USA TODAY Sports