For David Price, Wednesday’s outing represented the continuation of steady dominance since the All-Star break. The lefthander logged seven shutout innings, allowed just three hits, walked none, and struck out seven to lead the Red Sox to a 1-0 victory over the Blue Jays.
The Red Sox have three 1-0 wins this year. Price has started all of them — one on March 30 against the Rays, one in his first start of the second half against the Tigers, and then Wednesday’s gem. On three occasions in which he had no margin for error, he didn’t err.
“I expect to go out there and throw the baseball like this every five days,” Price said. “You know when you’re pitching in a close game but I always talk about that, especially with the young guys, it doesn’t matter if it’s 0-0, 1-0 or 7-0, always treat it the same, always treat it like it’s 0-0 game and you’re going out there trying to execute pitches, you don’t want to fall into bad habits whenever you have the lead. You always want to go out there and show the work that you’ve put forth in those four days prior. I want to treat every inning, every pitch like it’s 0-0 and we did a really good job of that [Wednesday].”
In fact, Price has been doing that for nearly the entirety of the second half. Since he made a trio of critical adjustments — moving from the third-base side of the rubber to the first-base side, lowering his release point in part to flatten the plane of his cutter, and significantly altering his pitch mix to “work backwards” — he’s been as good as any pitcher in baseball.
“He’s been unbelievable,” said catcher Sandy Leon. “You’ve got a lot of options. You know he’s going to execute a pitch 90 percent of the time . . . He’s been doing an amazing job.”
The magnitude of the adjustments Price has made in-season is fascinating. In the first half of the season, while still on the third-base side of the rubber, righties battered Price for 15 homers while posting a .251/.310/.446 line. His curveball was completely ineffective (righties were 7 for 11 with three homers; Price has ditched the pitch), and righties pounded his cutter for a .275 average, .505 slugging mark, and six homers. In the second half, righties have hit one homer off of Price while hitting .188/.233/.241. They have a .188 average against his cutter and an anemic .130 mark with a .152 slugging percentage against his two-seam fastball.
It’s been a real-estate turnaround, driven by location, location, location. Price’s overall location in the second half looks almost like a mirror-image opposite of what he did in the first half, with the lefthander working primarily to the outer part of the plate against righties in the second half after attacking predominantly to the inside edge in the first half.
The cutter has been the primary driver of the change. Price has gone from using that pitch to try to get in on the hands of righties (roughly 40 percent of the time he threw the pitch to righties in the first half, it was in off the plate) to employing it away – either the outer third of the plate or outside – more than 60 percent of the time since the All-Star break. He’s completely flipped his usage of the pitch, in a way that has replaced aggressive hacks with called strikes.
Meanwhile, Price has used his two-seamer and changeups in roughly similar spots against righties since making his mound relocation. However, the pitches have had considerably different impact coming from a different angle. With the two-seamer, righties had seen a pitch starting on the inner edge and drifting more towards the middle of the plate; now, they see the pitch coming at their belt buckle, freeze, and then watch it sneak back across the inner edge. The changeup, meanwhile, stays on the plate for longer before diving off the plate late, helping to explain why it’s become a go-to swing-and-miss offering for Price, who elicited 10 swings-and-misses with the pitch on Wednesday, his second most in any start this year.
“That’s a big key,” said Price. “To be able to execute that pitch, for the most part wherever I was trying to throw it, that was big.”
The totality of those changes has allowed Price to be as good as any pitcher in the majors since the All-Star break while also turning in a run that ranks as of the best after the break in team history. Some markers of his excellence (with all ranks among starters who threw at least 50 innings after an All-Star break):
■ Price has a 1.56 ERA since the All-Star break. That’s the lowest mark in the AL in that time and the third lowest by a Red Sox starter since the introduction of the All-Star Game in 1933. Only Roger Clemens (0.97 in 1990) and Luis Tiant (1.36 in 1972) ever had a better mark after the break.
■ He’s limited hitters to a .188 average (2nd lowest in the AL this year, 4th lowest by a Red Sox in the All-Star Game era), a .239 OBP (1st in the AL, 5th by a Red Sox), .255 slugging mark (1st in the AL, 3rd by a Red Sox), and .494 OPS (1st in the AL, 3rd-best by a Red Sox.
■ He has struck out 60 batters while walking nine, a 6.7 strikeout-to-walk ratio that ranks third in the AL since the break and sixth by a Red Sox over the 85-year All-Star-Game era.
He’s now made a half-dozen starts of at least six scoreless innings – tied with, among others, teammate Chris Sale for the fifth most such starts in the big leagues – with four of those coming in his nine outings since the break. He’s allowed two or fewer runs while pitching at least six innings in eight of his nine starts since the second half got underway.
The performance has been outstanding, not to mention stabilizing, for a Red Sox rotation that has otherwise struggled in recent weeks while Chris Sale has been out.
“He’s under control the whole time out there. Inside part of the plate, outside part of the plate, changeup, fastball up, he’s been amazing and he’s been very important,” said manager Alex Cora. “You lose one of your horses and the other guys have to step up. It’s not that he had to but he did. And he’s been great.”
Price is once again displaying the ability to dominate in a fashion that was familiar in his pre-Red Sox career. Whether those adjustments are setting him up to jettison the baggage of postseasons past remains to be seen, but certainly, if Price carries what he’s done over the last two months into October, the odds of doing so are in his favor.