David Price has had his ups and downs in Boston. In 2016, he had a good-but-not great year in which he struggled with the longball; in 2017, he started the year on the DL with elbow issues, got into a highly publicized fight with Dennis Eckersley after being activated, and saw those elbow problems recur in July.
Since his second return from the DL in September, Price has been used exclusively in relief, and you can see why everyone was so open to it: he needed to get Boston fans back on his side, and what better way to do it than with some dramatic, late-inning playoff heroics? The script seemed to write itself. Nobody seemed to think about whether it was the right move to maximize the Red Sox’ chances of winning a playoff series, however.
In Friday’s ALDS Game Two against the Astros, Price threw 2 2⁄3 scoreless innings and 38 pitches, with two strikeouts, one walk, one hit, and three infield flies (the one type of batted ball that’s nearly as good as a strikeout). It was an excellent outing, but an excellent outing that was wasted on a game Boston had already lost. When Price entered, starter Drew Pomeranz and reliever Carson Smith had already allowed four runs, more than enough to surpass the Red Sox’ two runs on the day. By the time Price got the chance to strike out and pop up all the Astros batters he cut through, the game was basically over.
Nor was Price’s performance in this outing an aberration, as he’s been nails in his return from the DL. If you combine his Friday outing with his regular season stats from the month of September, he’s thrown 11 1⁄3 innings over six outings with 15 strikeouts, three walks, four hits (three singles and a double), and no runs. That is a very good pitcher! That is a pitcher you don’t want to waste on mop-up duty. That is a pitcher who should be starting ballgames.
Now, it’s impossible to say what would have happened had Price started Game 2 of the ALDS. He might’ve been hit around by the Astros as well. And he wouldn’t have been able to shoulder a starter’s full workload, as the Red Sox have been pursuing this plan of using him in relief for the entirety of his return from the DL and didn’t try to stretch him out to 100-pitch, six-inning-plus outings. (I don’t like that decision either, but the Red Sox of course know more about Price’s physical health than I do; it’s very possible that he is truly incapable of throwing for that long. My beef is not really with that point, so we can assume that Price really is limited to, say, 40 pitches.)
But even a short start from David Price would’ve been incredibly useful to the floundering Red Sox. Maybe he only goes for three innings (even though his relief stint on Friday was meant to preserve him for Game 3, if needed, and so he presumably had more in the tank). That’s still an entire inning more than Drew Pomeranz actually pitched as a starter on Friday!
And a three-inning start would probably be a boon in Game Three, too. The year is 2017 and somehow Doug Fister is starting a win-or-go-home playoff game; in two of his last four starts, Fister has given up five or more runs in the first three innings. His ERA on the season on the first time through the order is a whopping 8.16. The odds of Fister giving Boston three good innings against this Astros lineup are low. Price doesn’t need to throw 100 pitches to be one of the Red Sox’ best options to start.
Really, we should’ve seen this kind of poor decisionmaking coming. With Andrew Miller’s crazy performance in the playoffs last year, “relief aces” were the talk of the town. We hoped managers would figure out that a great reliever doesn’t need to be limited to one inning, or to the end of the game, and start using them more flexibly. Instead, the message they received (or that John Farrell received, apparently) is that it’s incredibly important to have a reliever who is good and can throw multiple innings, even more important even than having a functional starter.
Congratulations to the Red Sox: you might not have a starting rotation that can ever hope to silence the Astros’ bats, but you do have a relief ace.
Henry Druschel is the co-Managing Editor of Beyond the Box Score. You can find him on Twitter at @henrydruschel.