The Red Sox are screwed either way.
David Price takes the hill for a pivotal start against the Houston Astros Thursday night, when perceptions of the left-handed ace and his $217 million contract will be at stake, not to mention, those of his pitching coach and manager.
If Price struggles in the same way that he has during three of his last four outings (29 hits and 22 earned runs over his last 23 1/3 innings), it’s going to mean more public consternation over the validity of his status as the anchor of Boston’s starting staff, a role he was lavishly induced to assume over the winter.
If Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia’s video analysis turns out to be right, and Price’s struggles stemmed from his hands not being in synch with the rest of his 6-foot-5 frame, then just what the hell have John manager Farrell and pitching coach Carl Willis been studying?
Somebody is going to look somewhat distrait. No matter what.
If Price steps to the mound and delivers a masterful complete-game shutout against the Astros, hitting only .232 as a team, he’ll earn what will be his fifth win in eight starts, and only lower his ghastly 6.75 ERA to 5.57. There are high expectations and all, probably some of which the pitcher couldn’t possibly live up to unless his name was Pedro Martinez and it was 1999. But Price has been awful for his new team, with any number of theories swirling as to why.
Price thinks Pedroia found the answer. He’ll put it to the test Thursday night.
“For me, it’s something I take pride in is being able to make adjustments to find my staples, you know, the things that I can always go back on and say this is the way that I throw the baseball and this is how I need to do things,” Price said. “I watched video from last year and I wasn’t able to do that last year. I had good success last year, but I didn’t have that rhythm early on this year. So it’s definitely frustrating to know that it could be something that small.”
While the Red Sox have received eye-opening performances from Rick Porcello and Steven Wright, the back half of the starting rotation, which is technically the front end, has been dismal. Price and Clay Buchholz are 1-2 among American League pitchers who have allowed the most earned runs, 31 and 26, respectively. Price boasts the highest ERA among AL starters (Buchholz is sixth at 5.90), and only Ken Giles, Matt Shoemaker, and Kris Medlen have a worse WAR than Price’s -0.7. (Buchholz is -0.3 while old friend Rich Hill (4-3, 2.39 ERA) has a 1.0 WAR, making $7 million less this season in Oakland.)
But aside from those lingering few desperately grasping onto Buchholz’s brief flashes of competence, most assumed his ineptness would be one of the essential traits of the 2016 Boston Red Sox.
No so much Price’s failures thus far.
Price’s history of being a slow starter — a narrative that caught fire some time after the Tampa Bay Rays knocked off eight runs off him in only 3 2/3 innings late last month — is somewhat jumbled. From April 6-May 8 last season, Price was 3-1 with a 3.30 ERA with the Detroit Tigers. In 2014, he was 3-3 with a 4.53 ERA for the Rays. In 2013, he had what is now the second-worst start of his past six seasons, going 1-3 with a 4.78 ERA from April 2-May 9.
He was 5-2 with a 2.98 ERA to start 2012; 5-3 with a 3.12 ERA from April 1-May 11, 2011.
Not exactly awful.
This season, he’s been awful.
“For me to come in and struggle the way that I have and still be 4-1, that’s a testament to all the offense, our bullpen, and how we’ve come together as a team,” Price said. “I’m mentally strong. I’m not going to harp on these seven starts or my last start. I’m going to go out there on Thursday and be ready to get after the Astros.”
Houston’s anemic bats would figure to be the perfect medicine for Price, whose strongest outing of the season came with 14 strikeouts against the lowly Atlanta Braves, a team that has scored only 92 runs all season, two of them in the early, uneven stages of Price’s victory against them on April 26.
But if he does come up strong, what does it mean for Pedroia’s double duty on the video monitor? Does he have enough time to consistently take care of Porcello, Wright, and Eduardo Rodriguez too?
And why has he yet to cure Buchholz?
“We’re here for each other,” Pedroia said. “You want everybody to do good. Trying to win, man.”
The biggest question of all, of course, will be to see if Price can find new life on his fastball after it was DOA over the weekend at Yankee Stadium, where his max velocity of 93.5 miles per hour was the lowest it has ever been in any of his major league starts. According to FanGraphs, Price has thrown his fastball 50.3 percent of the time, with an average speed of 92 miles per hour. Last season, he threw it 53.4 percent of the time at an average speed of 94.2 miles per hour. His changeup is averaging 83.3 miles per hour, down from his career average of 84.4.
No worries, though. The pitching coach and pitching guru manager of the team have an astute second baseman.
“We hadn’t connected to the hands,” Willis said. “We felt the foot was getting out from underneath him and he was not really getting a good load. That’s still part of the equation, but in connecting the hands with it, it allows it to all stay in a better loaded position.”
If it doesn’t, fans will be in a loaded position, ready to attack yet another high-priced free agent that has failed to impress in the early stages of his stay here.
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