Can David Price fix what went so wrong in his American League Division Series start against the Yankees? The Red Sox are making a bet on precisely such a proposition.
Manager Alex Cora announced that, despite Price’s awful outing in the ALDS (1 2/3 innings, three runs, two homers), he plans to stay with the lefthander as his Game 2 starter in the ALCS against the Astros. Cora made clear that he believes Price’s history of postseason struggles as a starter is more an issue of execution and mechanics than psychology. He further pointed to the lefthander’s performance against Houston – both in the regular season in recent years as well as in the playoffs – to explain his faith in the pitcher.
In his three seasons with the Sox, Price is 3-0 with a 3.38 ERA, 32 strikeouts, and seven walks in 24 innings spanning four regular-season starts against Houston. He also dominated for 6 2/3 shutout innings against Houston in the 2017 ALDS, proving easily the most effective Red Sox pitcher against the Astros. In his most recent outing against Houston in September, Price carried a shutout through six innings and struck out 10 Astros.
“I know how good he is. I know he’s pitched well against [the Astros]. I trust the guy,” said Cora. “I saw what happened last year against the Astros. He was actually the best pitcher in that [ALDS] last year. I know he was coming out of the bullpen but what he did was good to see, now. I think he’s going to make some adjustments and he’ll be fine.”
The premise is, of course, debatable. A number of evaluators in recent days suggested that, as candidly as Price has discussed his need to win in the playoffs – and his need to win as a starting pitcher in the playoffs – he’s created such enormous self-imposed pressure that it makes it difficult for him to perform to his normal standards.
According to such thinking, the fastball that Price threw in the dirt on his first pitch of Game 2 against the Yankees served as something of a tell: He’s built so much expectation into his playoff starts that it’s almost impossible for him to pitch to his usual standards.
But despite the fact that Price’s teams are 0-10 in his playoff starts, despite his sky-high October ERA as a starter, Cora doesn’t buy the premise that one player can handle October and another can’t.
“I’m not a big believer of like, he’s clutch, he’s not clutch,” said Cora. “There’s guys that execute and there’s guys that don’t.”
So what didn’t Price execute in his last outing? First, it’s worth taking stock of Price’s overall pitch mix. During his dominant second-half run, Price was getting to a number of areas of the strike zone, concentrated primarily on middle-away (and off the plate) from righthanders but working all over – in, out, up, down – with movement and deception.
But over his last three starts – regular season outings against the Yankees and Orioles, and the playoff outing against the Yankees – he’s been far more concentrated in the middle of the plate and down, a location that, in the era of swings geared to get the ball in the air, is a great place to drive the ball. Batters could narrow their focus to smaller areas and do damage when Price threw the ball there.
“I don’t know if it was command or overthrowing or mechanics, but it seems we were attacking the same area over and over again,” said Cora. “When we do that to big league hitters they’re going to take advantage of it.”
Against the Yankees specifically, the Red Sox saw Price reaching back for more velocity/power and, in the process, having his arm drag behind him. His delivery didn’t sync up in a way that permitted him to get the ball out in front of his body, so any velocity gains were more than wiped out by the diminished ability to command his pitches and generate movement.
Those issues have been particularly prevalent on Price’s fastball and cutter. His changeup has remained slightly diminished in effectiveness (fewer swings and misses) than before, but that’s not the source of his recent woes.
Most of the damage Price has endured in his most recent starts has come on his fastballs and cutters. The cutter is the pitch that seemed to transform Price’s season, the one that opened up both sides of the plate and rendered opponents mystified. That hasn’t been the case in his recent outings, particularly in his playoff start. Price gave up two homers (one an Aaron Judge moonshot, another a Gary Sanchez missile into the Green Monster seats) on the pitch against the Yankees – one more than he allowed in all of his starts following the All-Star break.
Yet even before the Yankees outing, Price had shown some increased vulnerability on the cut fastball in his last two regular-season starts against the Yankees and Orioles. From mid-July to mid-September, Price nailed the pitch on the outer third of the plate, with a pretty wide vertical spread of the pitch location from the top to the bottom of the strike zone, and even above it. That’s not an accident.
Here’s where Price located the cutter during his dominant run:
“I like [the cutter] more up. That’s when it’s good for me. I know that,” said Price. “I feel like the damage that I’ve done on that pitch is when it’s down.” In his most recent three starts, Price isn’t quite getting as frequently to the edge of the plate. And perhaps more important, he’s operating with the pitch in a narrow vertical window – in the bottom half of the strike zone and sometimes below – rather than expanding up:
The homers by Judge and Sanchez both fell into that area. They were mistakes.
“I was trying to go up to Judge and Sanchez. I know both of them are low-ball hitters,” said Price. “I just didn’t execute that pitch.”
So what’s happening? In July, after his disastrous start against the Yankees, Price (in tandem with pitching coach Dana LeVangie) made a number of changes to his pitch mix, moved from the third- to first-base side of the rubber to change the angle and location of his pitch patterns, and made a conscious decision to drop his arm slot, something he felt would be both physically less taxing and that would improve the angle of his pitches.
He found the right release point with which to attack with his entire mix and spread the strike zone both horizontally and vertically. He was throwing cutters and changeups away and off the plate, working up and down with the cutters while fading the changeups down and off the plate. His two-seam fastballs looked like they were heading toward a righthanded hitter’s belt-buckle before taking a hard left turn to the inner edge of the plate. The results were dominant. But Price’s release point has continued to drop rather than stabilizing, and in his most recent starts, he’s been releasing his cutter about an inch and a half lower than he did, on average, during his standout two-month run. He’s also been throwing the pitch harder of late, with less break.
In his most recent starts, the combination of throwing the cutter harder and the lower release point has led to less vertical drop of the pitch. In his brief start against the Yankees, the pitch had about 2 fewer inches of vertical movement than had been the case during his excellent nine-start run that followed the All-Star break.
The results of the higher velocity and diminished vertical movement are twofold:
1) Less movement allows hitters to swing at the cutters that initially look like strikes and then run back toward the middle of the plate. They’re also able to take pitches that start off the plate – and not get punished with called strikes.
Notably, batters are swinging at fewer than 30 percent of Price’s cutters in his last three starts, down from a swing rate of over 40 percent in the prior nine starts.
2) Swinging at such pitches might not be a devastating proposition for Price if hitters were topping out pitches and hitting grounders – something that was happening a lot during Price’s best stretch. But with less drop in the pitch and less ability to work up and down, instead of missing the barrel, batters are squaring up the ball, resulting in a 1.000 slugging percentage when that pitch is put in play.
A pitch that had been impossible to drill for extra-base hits suddenly became very vulnerable to exactly that.
The change in release point isn’t nearly as drastic with Price’s two-seam fastball; he’s just not doing a good job of locating the pitch. Moreover, with batters laying off more of his cutters (and changeups), they’ve been able to sit on the fastball, with a combination of aggressive swings and worse location representing a vicious combination.
Price spread the plate horizontally – working from one side to the other – during his standout nine-start run after the All-Star break.
In his last three starts, he’s been more middle-away and up with the pitch, starting it on the plate and having it run into nitro zones.
Batters aren’t taking late, defensive swings at pitches that looked like balls until they dropped back over the plate. Instead, they’re identifying a pitch at which they can swing from their heels early, pummeling his fastballs for a .304 average and .870 slugging mark in his last three starts.
“Being able to execute [the four-seam and two-seam fastball to the] glove-side is very big,” said Price. “When I’m going well, I execute them a lot of the time. When it’s not going as well, it has a tendency to run back to the middle a little bit.”
The Red Sox believe that those problems are minor. So does Price. If he can execute his mix to his spots, there’s a high likelihood that he’ll put the Red Sox in position to win. But in order to do so, he’ll have to control his effort level in a way that he did not in the ALDS.
Price expressed little doubt about his ability to do so, but he also recognizes that what he says in the leadup to his start on Sunday will be meaningless unless he performs in Game 2 against Houston.
“I’m excited. I want to get back out there. I want to help us win, and I want to do it as a starter,” Price said. “[But] I’m saying the same things over and over and over. It’s not about saying it at this time. It’s about going to do it.
“For me, getting off to a big start, the first couple innings, is such a big deal – not just for the pitcher but for the position players as well, just showing them that you’ve got it today. That kind of puts everybody at ease a little bit, lets them relax and play their game. Nobody has to try to do too much. It keeps everyone in their comfort zone to be themselves.”