David Price came to Fenway Park ready to celebrate the Red Sox’ 2018 championship season, and hoping to do it again sometime in the next four years.
Price had the right to opt out of the final four years and $127 million of the record-setting seven-year, $217 million deal he signed with the Red Sox after the 2015 season by midnight on Wednesday. However, as he basked in the afterglow of his first World Series title, the lefthander said that he would not leave the Red Sox.
“I’m opting in. I’m not going anywhere. I want to win here. We did that this year and I want to do it again,” Price said minutes before boarding a duck boat. “There wasn’t any reconsideration on my part ever. I came here to win. We did that this year and that was very special, and now I want to do it again.”
Red Sox principal owner (and Globe owner) John Henry was pleased with the decision. While industry opinion was nearly unanimous that Price wouldn’t have been able to make as much money on the open market as he will over the duration of his Red Sox deal, Henry said that the team wasn’t certain of the pitcher’s decision until he informed the club.
“[Boston is] a tough town in many ways. I think [the opt-out] was there because it gave him an opportunity to see if he wanted to spend [all seven years here],” said Henry. “He had a lot of choices when he decided to come to Boston. I think he [wanted] to see what it was going to be like. It would be hard for me to ever leave. I assume David feels the same way at this point. I can’t imagine we end up winning this thing without David Price this year. He was willing to pitch every day, sacrifice himself to be in the bullpen every day . . . so this [decision] is great news.”
Henry is well aware of the typical diminishing returns of pitchers as they age. Price delivered a strong 2018 season (16-7, 3.58 ERA, 9.1 strikeouts per nine innings in 30 starts) in which he emerged as the Red Sox’ second-half ace and then a World Series force (2-0, 1.98 ERA in 13⅔ innings), but at 33, Price is at an age when most pitchers decline.
Yet decline is not guaranteed, and if the lefthander can maintain his production or at least make his decline gradual, he will represent a valuable contributor for the Red Sox moving forward. And the Red Sox believe that, so long as Price remains healthy, he showed in 2018 why he represents a good bet to maintain his productivity moving forward.
A few elements bode well for Price’s future in Boston. Among them:
■ He vaporized the albatross of past playoff failures, and likewise wiped out any questions about his ability to excel in Boston.
“We came to Boston and Boston had this reputation of never winning in the playoffs,” Henry said. “Someone said David had the same thing. I said, ‘Well, Boston is a good place to come and get a monkey off your back.’ ”
■ Price showed a remarkable ability to adapt his arsenal in the middle of the season, not just once but twice, to change his plan of attack and to reestablish himself as a force. In July, after a dreadful start against the Yankees, he changed sides of the rubber, changed his arm slot, and altered his pitch sequencing to expand the plate and carve opposing hitters rather than working to just one side of the plate. The result was one of baseball’s best starters in the second half.
At the end of the regular season and into the start of the postseason, however, Price’s stuff backed up as his release point lowered. He made a slight adjustment with his hand position to get a more fluid delivery with a higher release point, which allowed him to attack with fastballs at the top of the strike zone and complementing that with changeups that dived late out of the zone.
The ability to adjust is considered a crucial element of pitchers who defy typical aging patterns. Price showed that he possesses it.
“To be able to make those adjustments and changes, that was huge,” said Price, one of two players to opt in on Wednesday (infielder Eduardo Nunez also will return in 2019, for $5 million). “I feel like that’s been kind of my career. The 10, 11 years I’ve been doing this, being able to make adjustments, make changes on the fly, that’s what’s helped me get to where I am right now.”
The ability to make one major in-season adjustment in a plan of attack is unusual. Price made two wholesale changes to how he attacks the plate, suggesting an outlier’s adaptability.
“He’s still evolving. He’s gone through multiple phases in his major league career,” said Red Sox vice president of pitching development Brian Bannister.
■ With the delivery adjustments that Price made during a bullpen session in Houston during Game 4 of the American League Championship Series, he showed greater velocity than he had all year. In the middle of the year, Price insisted that he still had more velocity in the tank, and that he believed that — somewhat like former Tigers teammate Justin Verlander — he would realize velocity gains at some point, whether in 2018 or beyond. That is precisely what happened in the playoffs, challenging the idea of a pitcher who must adapt to declining arm strength and stuff.
■ That said, there will be a time when Price does feature a decline in arm strength — most likely during the life of his Red Sox contract. The team was well aware of that likelihood when they signed Price in the first place, but believed that he has skills that will allow him to age favorably.
“We looked at all pitchers who are given long-term deals in their 30s. The primary [sources] of success were the ability to have a wipeout changeup, a sinker that utilizes gravity so it ages well as the arm slows down, the ability to throw a cutter, and [being] lefthanded,” said Bannister. “You look at the [Jamie] Moyers, you look at the [Tom] Glavines, you look at a lot of the guys who did it — they were lefthanded, they had the ability to make the ball go down, they had the ability to have success at lower velocities, and they usually have a really good changeup. He checks all those boxes.”
Ultimately, there are still risks for Price, and health is no guarantee. But while the Red Sox almost surely will pay him more than he might have received had he become a free agent this winter, the team’s confidence in what he can do in Boston may never have been greater.
“He still throws really hard,” said Bannister, “but he has the capability to do a lot of things. That was why he’s worth it, and he came through for us.”
Alex Speier can be reached at email@example.com.