Friday, October 19, 2018

Joe Sheehan Newsletter, October 8, 2018: "David Price"

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The Joe Sheehan Newsletter
Vol. 10, No. 96
October 8, 2018

On May 24, 2007, David Price stepped to the mound in Hoover, Alabama, to keep his Vanderbilt Commodores -- the #1 team in the land that year -- from being eliminated from the SEC baseball tournament on the second day. Coming off a surprising 6-4 loss on the tournament’s first day, the ‘dores looked to Price, soon to be named college baseball’s player of the year, to keep their season alive. Price answered the bell, spinning six perfect innings at Mississippi State and finishing with a five-hitter in a 3-2 Vandy win.

A week later, Price opened Vandy’s College World Series at the Nashville Regional, going nine innings of one-run ball, only to see his teammates held to a single tally themselves. Vandy would go on to win the game in 11 innings. Three days later, Price came out of the bullpen in the ninth to keep the elimination game tied, before yielding the game-winning homer in the tenth.

A year later, he was facing bigger tests. Fourteen months after being taken with the first overall pick in the 2007 draft, Price was called to the majors by the Rays. With the Rays fighting for a playoff berth, they didn’t have time to let Price get his feet wet. His second MLB appearance came with the Rays protecting a 7-4 lead in the seventh, two men on and one out, and Joe Mauer digging in. Price allowed a single to Mauer, then struck out Justin Morneau and Jason Kubel to escape the inning. Despite Price being about a year removed from Vanderbilt and having just three weeks of MLB experience, the Rays put him on their playoff roster -- and not just as a spectator. Price would make five postseason appearances for the Rays, winning one ALCS game and saving another, a key part of the expansion team’s first-ever American League pennant.

Five years later, Price was a star, and his team was once again fighting for a championship. The Rays found themselves tied with the Rangers at the end of the 2013 season, needing to play one game to determine the AL’s wild-card team. The Rays tabbed the big lefty to pitch the tiebreaker, and they would tab no one else. Price went the distance, allowing two runs on seven hits, helping the Rays to a 5-2 win.

A year ago today, the Red Sox were facing near-certain doom, down 2-0 to the Astros, and having seen their starter, Doug Fister, knocked from the game in the second inning. Up 4-3 in the third, John Farrell called on Price, then relegated to relief work to accommodate a balky elbow, to help keep the Red Sox going. Price threw four shutout innings, in an elimination game, protecting a one-run lead the whole way, against the best offense in baseball. The Red Sox lived to fight another day.

From Hoover to Nashville, from the Tropicana Dome to Fenway Park, David Price has come up big for his teams. Those games are as much a part of his record as anything else is, and if you want to make a case that Price lacks some ineffable quality that renders him Glass Joe under pressure, then you need to square that with the times he’s been Iron Mike as well.

The numbers, the overall performance, is on record: a 5.28 ERA in 75 playoff innings in nine postseasons across 11 years. That’s not good, and I’m not spinning it as such. You’ve probably heard that Price’s teams are 0-10 when he starts a playoff game. Setting aside that this split excludes the Game 163 in 2013, consider that Price has been all but abandoned in those contests. His teams, in those ten starts, have scored a total of 21 runs, 2.1 per game. They’ve scored more than three runs once, never more than four. “0-10” makes for a convenient sports-radio hook, but in this summer of Jacob deGrom, perhaps we should at least take a look at run support before using a won-loss record to condemn a hurler.

David Price has not pitched well in the postseason, except when he has. Of his ten postseason starts, four have met the standard of quality starts, and six have had Game Scores of 50 or better. (Four have been exactly 50, an amusing statistical quirk.) He’s thrown at least six innings eight times, pitched into the seventh seven times. On balance, it’s an unimpressive record, but the disconnect comes when we draw conclusions off that record. “David Price has a bad postseason track record” is a reasonable statement. “David Price has some deficiency that means he can’t pitch in the postseason” ignores all the times he did, all the times he’s come up big, and tries to divine meaning from a subset of a subset of a 2000-inning MLB career.

I don’t know what the track record of a player who couldn’t perform in the postseason would look like, but I know it’s not this. The last time we went around on a player who couldn’t play in October, it was with Alex Rodriguez. Like Price, Rodriguez suffered from a similar cherry-picking of his record, a line drawn at Game 3 of the 2004 ALCS, with nothing before that night counting at all. It was...not baseball journalism’s finest moment.

It’s seductive, this idea that we can tease out a man’s innards from his box score line. It’s tempting to think we can look at statistics and see character, heart, desire, the makings of every sports movie you’ve ever watched. The thing is, it’s reductive, and insulting, and it makes us all a little bit less than.

Baseball is incredibly hard, and it’s harder than that in the playoffs. All of these guys, from Mookie Betts to Stephen Tarpley, are absurdly talented baseball players who have had to demonstrate physical skills, intelligence and the ability to learn, had to compete for decades to get to the point where you give a damn whether they bury their 1-2 curve or take the change-up to right field. What separates them does so over seasons, over decades, over careers. On a given day, a given night, any of them can be the hero.

Someone you’ve never heard of named Tony Wolters pushed the Rockies into the playoffs on a night $183 million outfielder Jason Heyward couldn’t buy a hit. We just watched journeyman catcher Erik Kratz get more hits in a day than superstar Nolan Arenado had in the Division Series. Sean Newcomb drove in a run Sunday night, which ties him with his very rich and famous teammate Freddie Freeman in the Braves’ series against the Dodgers. Baseball is hard and weird and never more so than in October, when we force our 19th-century national pastime into a 21st-century mold and demand answers.

Man, the only answer is “baseball.”

So, no, David Price isn’t missing something. Baseball is hard, and they pay the other guys, too. Over 75 innings over nine seasons against the best there is, some pitchers are going to get their asses kicked. It doesn’t mean any more than that, and if you need further evidence, check out Alex Rodriguez’s 2009 World Series.

Or better still, what David Price did 365 days ago today.