David Price's First Dodgers Start May Be Worth The Wait

David Price's First Dodgers Start May Be Worth The Wait
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Sixteen years have passed since the first time the Dodgers tried to get David Price in their uniform, and despite finally acquiring him this February, another year will have passed since then before he finally puts that uniform on for a regular-season game. That’s because Price, whom the Dodgers attempted to draft out of high school in the nineteenth round of the 2004 amateur draft, is sitting out the abbreviated 2020 season over concerns about the spread of COVID-19.

“After considerable thought and discussion with my family and the Dodgers,” Price wrote on Instagram on Saturday, “I have decided it is in the best interest of my health and my family’s health for me not to play this season.”

Price’s decision, which we at Inside the Dodgers fully support, gives us an opportunity to take a step back and look at his career, how he got to this point, and what kind of pitcher the Dodgers and their fans can expect him to be when he returns to action next year.

Rather than sign with the Dodgers as a late-round pick in 2004, Price opted to attend Vanderbilt University, an excellent academic school with a strong baseball program located just 40 minutes from Price’s hometown of Murfreesboro, Tennessee. It was the right choice. Not only did the intelligent, thoughtful lefthander continue his education, but after three years of Division I dominance, capped by winning the Dick Howser Trophy as the best college player of 2007, he was selected by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays with the first overall pick in the 2007 draft.

Rather than give him a traditional signing bonus, the Rays, who would officially change their name the next year, signed Price to a six-year major league contract worth a guaranteed $8.5 million. Price didn’t pitch professionally in 2007, but, with the rails greased by his contract, he rocketed up to the majors in his first professional season in 2008, debuting in High-A (1.82 ERA in six starts) and making his major-league debut on September 14. Price posted a 1.93 ERA in 14 innings spread across one start and four relief appearances that September and suddenly found himself closing games in the postseason less than 18 months after leaving college. Most memorably, Price retired four of five batters to save the Rays’ 3-1 win over the Red Sox in Game 7 of the 2008 American League Championship Series, clinching what remains the only pennant in team history.

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Price started the next year back in Triple-A, but returned to the majors in late May, this time joining the Rays’ rotation, where he would remain. Price proved he belonged in 2008, and he proved he was special in 2009, posting a 2.72 ERA (144 ERA+) in 208 2/3 innings, starting the All-Star Game, and finishing second in the Cy Young voting with a 19-6 record. Just 24, Price was already one of the best pitchers in baseball, a fact he affirmed by striking out 218 men in 2011, winning the American League’s Cy Young award in 2012 with a 20-5 record, a 2.56 ERA (154 ERA+) and 205 strikeouts in 211 innings, and making the All-Star team five times in six years from 2010 to 2015. That Justin Verlander was more deserving of the 2012 Cy Young doesn’t diminish Price’s effectiveness over that span. Over those six years, Price averaged 217 innings and 210 strikeouts a season while posting a 2.97 ERA (130 ERA+), 1.11 WHIP, and striking out 4.02 batters for every walk.

Price’s signature performance during his glory days with the Rays came on September 30, 2013. The Rays and Rangers had finished the 162-game season tied for the second wild-card spot with matching 91-71 records. The tie-breaking 163rd game was to be held in Texas at the now-shuttered ballpark I used to call the Launchpad at Arlington. To the Rays’ great fortune, the game fell on Price’s turn in the rotation. The Rays jumped out to an early 3-0 lead when Evan Longoria hit a two-run homer off Martín Pérez in the top of the third. Price made it stand, going the distance in a 5-2 complete game victory.

Tampa Bay subsequently beat Cleveland in the Wild Card Game, but Boston had its revenge in the Division Series, picking away at Price for seven runs, two of them on David Ortiz solo homers, and eliminating the Rays in four games.

The next year, with Price’s salary rapidly escalating via arbitration, the Rays dealt their star lefty to the Tigers in a five-player, three-way deadline deal that netted them current shortstop Willy Adames, then an 18-year-old in A-ball in the Tigers’ system. By adding Price, the Tigers were able to boast the last three AL Cy Young award winners (Verlander in 2011, Price in 2012, and Max Scherzer in 2013), but that trio was inexplicably swept by the Orioles in the Division Series. That failure is remembered more clearly than the fact that Price turned in the best start of the three, holding Baltimore to just two runs (on a sixth-inning home run by Nelson Cruz) over eight innings in the must-win Game 3 only to suffer an excruciating 2-1 loss and elimination.

It was around this point that the perception of Price as a postseason choker took hold. Price, the narrative went, had made five postseason starts to that point and lost all five. That narrative ignored his tremendous outing in Game 163 in 2013, technically a regular season game but with more on the line than three of his five actual postseason starts. It also ignored his lousy run support. Price’s team scored just 10 runs for Price across those five starts, thrice pushing across just a single tally. Throw in Game 163, and he had four quality starts in six playoff outings and had twice gone at least eight innings without allowing more than two runs, but the media loves a narrative.

In 2015, that narrative bled onto the field. Having lost Scherzer to free agency, the Tigers collapsed, ending their string of four straight division titles. With Price a pending free-agent, outgoing general manager Dave Dombrowski dealt him to the Blue Jays at the deadline for three young pitchers, including Matthew Boyd and Daniel Norris. In Toronto, Price helped the Jays to their first playoff berth since 1993 by going 9-1 with a 2.30 ERA (179 ERA+) in 11 starts down the stretch. However, after Price gave up five runs in seven innings in a losing effort in Game 1 of the Division Series against the Rangers, Blue Jays manager John Gibbons publicly lost faith in the ace his team had given up so much to acquire, refusing to give him another start in the series. Thereafter, the weight of the false narrative about his postseason struggles appeared heavy on Price’s shoulders. The Jays eked out the ALDS on Jose Bautista’s famous bat-flip homer, but Price posted a 5.40 ERA against the Royals in two more losses in the ALCS (though one was a quality start, 6 2/3 IP, 3 R).

[Video: The Fallout From David Price's COVID-19 Opt-Out]

That didn’t stop the Red Sox from signing Price to a seven-year, $217 million contract that December. That contract looked like only a slight overpay for Price heading into his age-30 season. The 6-foot-6 lefty had a representative season for Boston in 2016, leading the majors with 230 innings pitched, posting a 112 ERA+ and striking out 228 men against just 50 walks. However, he also allowed a career-high 30 home runs. Meanwhile, the psychological strain of his largely unearned postseason infamy was evident in Game 2 of the Sox’s shocking sweep at the hands of Cleveland in the Division Series. Price let a couple of one-out seeing-eye singles turn into a four-run second inning and failed to get through four frames in his worst postseason start to that point.

Coming off the 2016 season, Price had averaged 32 starts and 218 innings a year for seven straight seasons, and with the postseason included, had averaged 244 1/3 innings per year over the previous three seasons. In 2017, his arm finally gave out. Elbow issues in camp pushed his season debut back to May 29, and a recurrence cost him nearly two more months from late July through mid-September. The elbow wasn’t his only issue. Price also clashed with the Boston media, notably Evan Drellich and Dennis Eckersley. However, what was inarguably Price’s worst season, both on and off the mound, ended on a high note. After returning from the disabled list for the second time in mid-September, Price was used exclusively in relief to tremendous effect: 15 1/3 scoreless innings with 19 strikeouts, playoffs included.

Price used that hot finish as a springboard for a redemptive 2018. It wasn’t a complete return to form, but he did make 30 starts and post a 123 ERA+ over 176 innings, and, in the postseason, he finally got the monkey off his back. It didn’t happen right away. He gave up seven runs in 6 1/3 innings over his first two starts, but the Red Sox won the latter game 7-5, marking the first time in his career his team had won a postseason game he had started (and, not coincidentally, the first time his team had scored more than four runs, and just the second time they scored more than three, in one of his postseason starts). Again, Price used that small positive as a springboard, and over his final three starts (plus a three-batter relief appearance) that postseason, he went 3-0 with a 1.37 ERA and 19 strikeouts in 19 2/3 innings. That included a 1.98 ERA against the Dodgers in the World Series and the win in the decisive fifth game, in which he answered a leadoff home run by David Freese with seven otherwise scoreless innings. By all rights, Price should have been the Series MVP, but he was surely content enough with the championship and the destruction of the narrative.

Unfortunately, injuries were an issue again in 2019. Elbow tendonitis cost him two and a half weeks in May, and a cyst on his left wrist effectively ended his season in early August. The end result was just 107 1/3 innings over 22 starts, numbers which surely contributed to the Red Sox’s decision to leverage the Dodgers’ desire for Mookie Betts to unload Price and his contract, which had $96 million over three years remaining at the time of the deal, half of which Boston agreed to pay.

Price had the cyst removed in September and will now have had the better part of a year and a half to rest his elbow having thrown just 6 1/3 innings (4 1/3 of them in spring training) between August 4, 2019 and the resumption of play in 2021. There’s no guarantee that the rest will rejuvenate him, but given the roughly $32 million the Dodgers owe him over the next two years (Price will forgo the pro-rated $11.48 million he would have received for participating in the abbreviated 2020 season), one might rather let Price have that rest going in to his age-35 season than have him risk further wear and tear on what amounts to an exhibition season.

It’s important to note that, even amid his injury issues over the last three years, Price was still a well-above-average pitcher. From 2017 to ’19, he posted a 122 ERA+ with 381 strikeouts in 358 innings. His fastball, which averaged 95 miles per hour in his prime, now sits around 92 mph, but his secondary pitches, including his high-80s cutter, have largely held steady in terms of velocity and improved in terms of effectiveness. With the Rays, Price would often open a game by going once through the opposing order without throwing more than a handful of off-speed pitches, if any. In recent years, however, as his fastball has become less of a weapon, he has compensated with his cutter and changeup, both of which have steadily improved over the course of his career, and though he only spots his curve, it is tremendously effective when he does.

Other than the health of his arm, the biggest concern about Price is his tendency to give up fly balls, which has increased with age and has seen him exchange some double plays for home runs in recent seasons (though the overall trends in the game have contributed to that exchange). In general, the move from Fenway Park and the AL East to Dodger Stadium and the NL West should work in his favor, but, despite their reputations, Dodger Stadium is a friendlier home-run park than Fenway. Price’s last start in L.A. came in 2016, when the Red Sox made three errors behind him and he gave up six runs (three earned) in five innings, including a solo homer by Justin Turner. Hopefully by his next start in Dodger Stadium, David Price’s arm will feel brand new, there will be a little less juice in the ball, there will be fans in the stands, and the pandemic will be behind us. Until then, we wish him and his family the best of health.

Cliff Corcoran covers baseball for The Athletic and is a former lead baseball writer for SI.com. The co-author or editor of 13 baseball books, including seven Baseball Prospectus annuals, he has also written for USA Today, SB Nation, Baseball Prospectus, Sports on Earth, The Hardball Times, and Boston.com, among others. He has been a semi-regular guest analyst on the MLB Network and can be heard more regularly on The Infinite Inning podcast with Steven Goldman. Follow Cliff on Twitter @CliffCorcoran.