The calendar had just flipped to December, but Santa came early this year for Red Sox fans.
About a week after reports trickled out that Boston was “all in” on the David Price sweepstakes, the Sox signed the 30-year-old lefty ace to the richest contract ever for a pitcher yesterday around 5 p.m.: seven years, $217 million. Dave Dombrowski finally got his man.
Here’s what the Red Sox have acquired in Price: He’s been an ace since his first full major league season in 2010. That year he finished 19-6 with a 2.72 ERA in 208.2 IP. He was second in the Cy Young voting to Felix Hernandez and made the All-Star team. It was a sign of things to come. Since 2010, Price has averaged 32 starts, 217 IP, a 2.97 ERA (which is right in line with his 3.05 FIP), 8.7 K/9, and for people who are into that kind of stuff, 16 wins. He’s a five-time All-Star and has been in the top six for Cy Young voting four times (winning once and coming in second twice). As FanGraphs’ Jeff Sullivan put it yesterday, Price is almost as good as it gets and guys that good tend to be good for longer than those who haven’t been good.
That statement isn’t exactly quantum physics: obviously good players tend to play at a higher levels for longer than, say, the Jeff Fryes of the world. But when this much money is involved for a player past his twenties, everything about the player and contract in question is going to be put under the microscope.
Full disclosure: I love this signing. Honestly, how could you not? Is it a crap-ton of money? Of course. If you’re willing to look down the road to the 2018 season, the Red Sox will be spending nearly $100 million on four guys: Price, Pablo Sandoval, Hanley Ramirez, and Rick Porcello. When you’re dealing in free agency as a big market club, this is the literal price you pay. Thanks to the latest version of the CBA, there’s a rare number of free agents who enter the open market about to hit their prime (Jason Heyward this year and Bryce Harper in 2019 are the examples here). By nature of the way the business is structured, if you want to sign a top-tier free agent, you’re almost always going to be forced to overvalue a guy who has either begun or about to begin his thirties. What happened with Price is no exception.
Here’s the great thing about this contract, though: Price has a player opt-out after Year #3. Zach Greinke, the other top-tier free agent starter on the market, had the same thing in his contract when he signed with the Dodgers. He opted out and is probably going to sign a 5-6 year deal with a similar AAV that Price did. Scrolling through Twitter yesterday, I was pretty surprised that there was a contingent of people who think Price won’t opt out like Greinke after the 2018 season. Barring any serious injury/decline that limits his value going forward, I’m going to go out on a limb and say there is a 100% chance that if Price continues throwing 200 inning, 200 strikeout, ~3.00 ERA seasons he’s going to opt out and try to turn what is effectively a four-year, $127 million contract into a 5-6 year, $150-180 million contract.
If that’s the case, then the Red Sox are having their cake and eating it too. They would’ve avoided signing a pitcher over 30 to a long term contract, their biggest bugaboo, and will have gotten the best of the backside of Price’s prime. Even if Price opts in, however, that wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. Barstool Sports’ Jared Carrabis did a really good breakdown of Price’s contract here. The short version: If Price opts in for 2019, that will only be his age-33 season. Boston signed John Lackey at 34, and traded for Curt Schilling at 37. There’s a pretty high chance that one or two of those Price seasons between ages 33 and 36 (that’s right, Price’s contract will be up before he’s as old as Schilling was when he made his Red Sox debut) will be a dud. But if the Sox can get 80% of what Price was from on average from 2010-15 (in other words, if he can average just over 4 WAR per year) over the course of the next seven seasons, they’ll be in business.
Money aside, Price gives Boston exactly what they’ve lacked since trading away Jon Lester at the 2014 trade deadline: a legit number one starter. I’ve argued against the need to have an ace for two years now, citing the 2014 Orioles (96 wins, AL runner-up) and the 2015 Royals (95 wins, World Series champs) as examples of teams that were able to have successful seasons despite not having a top 15 starter on their roster. I still claim that while the Red Sox starting pitching wasn’t great in 2015, it was a lot closer to average than people think, and the real issue with last season’s team was their bullpen meltdown and atrocious defense for the first 2/3rds of the year. Even so, I’m not an idiot; Price makes this team better today than they were during the early afternoon yesterday. Price had perhaps the best season of his career last year, posting a career high in WAR (6.4), ERA (2.45), ERA- (60), and FIP- (68). His velocity was as good as ever, per PITCHf/x data, and he continued to develop his changeup, throwing it a career high 22.4% of the time, a number that has increased every season starting in 2013. FanGraphs’ pitch values pegged Price’s change as his best pitch last year, so it’s encouraging to see that the work has been paying off.
From a statistics standpoint, there are only a couple numbers that give me any pause. First, Price’s 2015 strand rate was a tick above his career average and his BABIP was just below league average. It’s not a huge deal—those numbers aren’t exactly outliers—but I thought it was still worth mentioning. Secondly, and maybe more concerning, was Price’s HR luck. Price posted the lowest groundball rate of his career (40.4%) and had his lowest HR/FB ratio (7.8) since 2010. In other words, Price gave up fewer grounders than ever yet still managed to keep his HR totals under control. This explains why his xFIP (which strips out home run luck) is a less eye-popping 3.24. That number is only 20% better than league average, which, while still great, isn’t quite the deviation that his ERA and FIP numbers are. Price was a force last season, but there are some underlying numbers that show sequencing might have given him a little boost in the more standard-type stats.
There’s also the matter of Price’s less than stellar postseason record. Look, I get the concern here. There’s no way to spin a 1-7 record (where the only win came in a relief appearance where he gave up three runs in three innings) with a 5.46 ERA since 2010. Price’s only effective postseason came in 2008, when he murdered the Red Sox’s title defense working out of the bullpen (WARNING: Click that link at your own risk). Of course, that’s 63.1 postseason innings versus 1441.2 regular season innings. The stakes are higher in the playoffs, and we tend to remember those moments more clearly because of those raised stakes. But it’s foolish to judge a player based on what amounts to 4.2% of his career major league innings. There’s a term for that…it’s on the tip of my tongue…
In other words, don’t worry about the playoff numbers. Price wouldn’t be the first pitcher to become effective in the postseason midway through his career, and he won’t be the last.
Look, there are going to be question marks with any free agent signing, especially when the free agent in question turned 30 and in August and is getting paid more than any other player at his position in baseball history. Price has a history with the Sox, and not all of it is exactly great. There’s absolutely long-term risk at play here. However, the fact of the matter is this: the Red Sox entered the offseason needing pitching more than anything else. They signed the best starter available coming off of another Cy Young-caliber season and traded for the best closer in baseball since 2010. The price may have been high for both players, but there can be no debate that Boston is much better off for 2016 and 2017 than they were 24 hours ago. When you’re a big market team with an elite farm system, you can afford to make these moves. The only remaining question: How many more moves will Dombrowski want to make?