Unfazed by the narrative, Boston Red Sox manager Alex Cora never agonized about David Price's role for the American League Championship Series, assuring the enigmatic left-hander moments after the club's ALDS-clinching victory in Game 4 against the New York Yankees that he wouldn't be banished to the bullpen for the best-of-seven showdown with the Houston Astros.
Despite compounding his dubious playoff reputation in Game 2 against New York - a 7-2 loss in which Price failed to make it out of the second inning - the organization still had faith in him, and so he'd get another opportunity to rewrite the narrative that's understandably resulted from his career 0-9 record and equally damning 6.03 ERA as a starter in the postseason.
"No, no. He's one of our starters," Cora told reporters following Price's ALDS performance. "Just a bad outing today. It just so happened it wasn't his day. He didn't make pitches. We trust him. He’s bounced back before. We’ll talk to him to make a few adjustments. And we’ll go from there."
Then, in the days leading up to the series opener against the reigning World Series champs, Cora offered Price another tacit vote of confidence, rejecting the suggestion that the five-time All-Star's persistent struggles in October are psychological.
"I'm not a big believer of like, he's clutch, he's not clutch," Cora said Thursday. "There's guys that execute and there's guys that don't."
On Sunday evening, though, with the Red Sox desperately needing a victory after dropping Game 1 to the Astros at Fenway Park, Price hovered somewhere in between, scratching and clawing his way through 4 2/3 uneven innings in an eventual 7-5 win that didn't exactly feed the "Price can't start in the postseason" narrative, but didn't dispel it, either. And, more broadly, taking into account both process and result, Price neither gave Cora reason to keep him in the rotation nor cause to bump him, effectively immediately, into a relief role as the series shifts to Houston tied 1-1.
As Cora promised, Price made significant adjustments for Sunday's start, attacking the Astros quite differently than he did the Yankees in that ALDS outing, which saw him allow three runs on three hits - including a pair of homers - and two walks over 1 2/3 innings.
Notably, Price reduced his changeup usage dramatically against Houston, as his fastball variants - his four-seamer, two-seamer, and cutter - accounted for 71 of his 80 pitches. The approach stood in stark contrast to the one he used throughout his most prosperous stretch of the regular season, from July 20 through Sept. 12, when he fashioned a 1.56 ERA across nine starts and allowed just two home runs in 57 2/3 innings. During that seven-week stretch, Price used his changeup roughly a quarter of the time, just like he did in Game 2 of the ALDS.
|Game||Four-seam %||Two-seam %||Cutter %||Change %||Avg. exit velocity||Whiff %|
Perhaps, then, in an effort to confound the Astros, who are renowned for their scouting and pregame preparation, Price opted for a more fastball-centric approach Sunday. Regardless, as the table indicates, the results were promising: The Astros made less hard contact than the Yankees did, and whiffed on a higher percentage of pitches, too.
Moreover, Price also deserved better outcomes on a handful of batted balls. Carlos Correa's second-inning, one-out single, for instance, was largely Xander Bogaerts' fault. The shortstop neglected to charge a fairly routine grounder, allowing Correa to reach first on a batted ball with a hit probability of just 17 percent. Two batters later, Correa (and Martin Maldonado) scored on George Springer's duck snort down the first base line, which came sizzling off his bat at 65.8 miles per hour, giving him the second-lowest exit velocity of the game. The hit probability on that one was 48 percent. With a little bit of luck, Price's final line could've looked much better.
On the other hand, Price's velocity was down across the board in Sunday's victory, with his four-seamer sitting at 91.8 mph, according to Baseball Savant, a full tick lower than it was against New York. Perhaps that's why he nibbled often, while those four walks - matching his season high - evidenced his inconsistent command. And there was that booming two-run homer he served up to Marwin Gonzalez in the top of the third, a towering blast that continued a disconcerting recent trend: Over his last four starts, dating back to Sept. 19, Price has allowed eight home runs to right-handed hitters.
All told, it was far from great without being completely horrible. But in fairness, had Boston not won the game, Price's final line - four earned runs on five hits and four walks with four strikeouts over 4 2/3 innings - would look much worse. Through two postseason starts in 2018, Price owns a 7.71 ERA with a 2.21 WHIP, and has taxed his club's bullpen heavily each time out.
Even though there were some encouraging signs, then, in Sunday's gutsy-but-ultimately-underwhelming start, the Red Sox would be remiss not to at least consider moving Price into a relief role for the remainder of the series. After all, he presumably wouldn't start again until a potential Game 6 - Nathan Eovaldi, Rick Porcello, and Chris Sale are likely up next - and he just hasn't looked good enough to guarantee another start at the expense of his potential value as a reliever over the next three games. Price, after all, killed it as a reliever last October, allowing just five hits and two walks over 6 2/3 scoreless innings against the Astros, and Boston's bullpen has been shaky this postseason. Price can't start Game 6 if there's no Game 6.
Will they actually do it? Probably not. But Price made it clear ahead of the ALCS that he's happy to pitch in any role that helps his team win the World Series. Following a second straight mediocre start, Cora should at least consider taking him up on that.
Jonah Birenbaum is theScore's senior MLB writer. He steams a good ham. You can find him on Twitter @birenball.