The Price of Price
by Jim Silva
What is the right price for an ace? And who would pay it? This off-season that question was explored multiple times with the Red Sox answering in their own way when they grabbed David Price from league rivals, the Toronto Blue Jays by offering $217 million for seven seasons of his services. That is a hefty price to pay, but the Sox had boxed themselves into a corner last season when they spent all of their magic beans on two donkeys – neither of whom could pitch – infuriating the Boston faithful. And boy did they pay! The Red Sox rotation only had two starters manage an ERA under 4.00 and those two pitchers only combined for 39 starts, about the equivalent of one and a quarter rotation spots.
So what did they get in David Price? Well, he is very slowly aging, or so say his stats. He will pitch this season as a 30 year old and he still averages 94.2 mph with his fastball which he throws just over half the time. He mixes in a change, a cutter, and a curve with his two and four seam fastballs to keep batters guessing wrong more often than not. He is a horse, throwing 200+ innings every season since 2010 except for 2013 when he only threw 186.67 (and led the league in complete games with four). He led the league last season in ERA at 2.45 over his 220.33 innings with a strikeout to walk ratio of 4.79 as he struck out 9.2 batters per nine innings. In short, he pitches a lot and he dominates when he pitches. David Price is clearly an ace, but he is more than that.
Former rotation mate Chris Archer refers to Price as a “culture changer” in an article by Michael Silverman for the Boston Globe. And here is another reason why the Red Sox will benefit from David Price, again from Archer, “He’s going to change the way those guys think over there – for the good”. Price, like former Rays teammates Archer and James Shields have signs that say, “If you don’t like it, pitch better!” That motto of self-responsibility (which purportedly came from James Shields’ dad) is refreshing in this time of blaming others and refusing to take responsibility for one’s own fate. Price posts his sign in his locker so that he can see it everyday. He certainly takes care of his own business when he pitches, going deep into games, striking out more than nine batters per nine innings, and keeping walks and home runs down, all leading to FIPs (fielding independent pitching – a version of ERA) that is often lower than his ERA. Price will give the Red Sox leadership and 200+ quality innings, which is exactly what they paid for. Through his first 24 starts he has definitely been a horse leading the league in innings pitched, although it hasn’t been as pretty as Red Sox Nation would like. His peripherals are consistent with his career numbers with two important exceptions; he has allowed 1.0 home runs per nine – double his average from last season – and he has given up 9.4 hits per nine, up 2.5 hits per nine from 2015. He has been the third best starter so far with an ERA of 4.34 and league worst hits allowed total of 163, but if he returns to close to his 2015 form, watch out for Boston’s nine.
Last year’s rotation was short on sure bets, which is why they had to go out and get price, but they were loaded with guys who were talented enigmas, few more enigmatic than Clay Buchholz. He has never thrown 200 innings or made 30 starts in a season, but he threw a no-hitter in his second major league start. He is older than David Price at 31 and has spent time on the disabled list almost every season with injuries of varied seriousness including esophagitis, knee surgery and multiple DL stints due to back stiffness. Last season ended with an elbow injury after Buchholz put up ERAs that declined every month from 5.76 in April/March, to 3.31 in May, down to 2.21 in June, and finishing with a July where his ERA was 1.46 in two starts before his elbow finished his season. He throws reasonably hard with a fastball that averaged 92 mph and four quality pitches. Confusing isn’t he?
Will Clay be the good Clay Buchholz or the bad Clay Buchholz? The healthy Clay or the fragile Clay? After parts of nine seasons anyone who says they know what he will do this year is a nut job. The middle ground would be his career numbers with an ERA of 3.90 with 8.5 hits per nine innings, 3.2 walks per nine, 0.8 home runs per nine, and 7.1 strikeouts per nine. His strikeouts are trending up over the last few seasons and his walks and home runs are trending down. So here was my nut job prediction at the beginning of the season: if Buchholz stays off the DL this season, he will post an ERA below 4.00 while putting up double figure wins and fewer losses. It seemed like a pretty safe prediction for most guys basing it on career numbers, although Clay Buchholz has made me look bad by losing his rotation spot with an ERA of 6.31 as a starter, while allowing opposing hitters to slug .531 against him – disastrous numbers. If he can straighten himself out in the pen and return to the rotation you can bet that I won’t hazard a guess as to what he will do the rest of the season. So far he has looked quite good in the pen and that might mean a permanent role change for Buchholz. His WHIP since moving to the pen has been 1.017 – half a batter better than he did as a starter – and batters have slugged only .257 – ah, much better.
Rick Porcello, who is only 27, is being paid like an ace even though he has never pitched like one as a professional. At over $20 million a season through 2019 the expectations are naturally, if unfairly, high. What Porcello does best is stay healthy and deliver slightly above league average innings. Up until last season he was a ground-ball pitcher who limited home runs and didn’t strikeout or walk a lot of batters. Entering 2015 he had career numbers of just under 1.0 home runs per nine, just over 2.2 walks per nine, and just under 6.0 strikeouts per nine. He has averaged around 30 starts a season since he broke in at the start of the 2009 season and his ground ball rate is usually around 60% so last season was an oddity but might turn into the new normal if the start of 2016 is any indication.
The 6’5” New Jersey native was not a ground ball pitcher last season due to an apparent change of approach that led to a career high 7.8 strikeouts per nine, but also a career high 1.3 home runs per nine innings. He maintained his excellent walk rate, but his hit rate spiked to 10.3 per nine – over 10.0 for the first time since 2012. The increase in hits and long balls led to a career worst ERA (4.92) and his worst FIP (4.13) in four seasons. The good news for the Red Sox is that Porcello seems to have held on to the good parts of his transformation and ditched most of the bad parts so far in 2016. His strikeout rate is over 7.0 and his walk rate is a career low 1.6, and although he has allowed 17 home runs, five of those came in his first 25.67 innings (for a home run rate of 1.8 per nine). Since then, his home run rate has stabilized at 1.1 home runs per nine. Porcello seems to have found some middle ground where he has maintained the strikeout and walk rate, but limited the home runs. To start the season his ground ball rate was up slightly to 51% so maybe he is trying to find his way back to what worked for him while maintaining the ability to blow hitters away when he needs to. The irony of the decreasing ground ball rate is that Porcello now has an excellent pair of glove men up the middle to turn his ground balls into outs if only he would let them! It boils down to this: with a WHIP over the last month of around 0.8 and an ERA of 2.61, maybe paying him like an ace was spot on even if it came a year early.
Joe Kelly is another hard thrower averaging over 95 mph with his fastball and while throwing hard is good, knowing where it will go is better. The aphorism that any major league hitter can hit a fastball no matter how fast it is has proven to be especially true with Kelly’s heater. The problem with a lack of command is that when you walk a bunch of batters – Kelly’s career average is 3.5 walks per nine innings – then the batters learn that they can wait until you eventually have to pipe one of those fastballs so that they can crush it. With heat like Kelly’s one would expect a higher strikeout rate than his career mark of 6.5 per nine innings (giving him a pedestrian strikeout to walk ratio of 1.88), and more missed bats. But Kelly’s career hits per nine rate of 9.2 per nine innings shows that he just isn’t fooling anyone. Until he can figure out how to control the fastball and master his other pitches well enough so that the batter doesn’t know what is coming next, then Kelly will remain what he is – talented, frustrating, and mediocre. Kelly only lasted nine games – six of them starts – before they sent him down to Pawtucket. He battled shoulder impingements early, and the Pawtucket team has used Kelly mostly in the pen. Relief looks good on him so far. It will be interesting if the big club trusts Kelly out of the pen if/when he makes it back up or if they try to stretch him out again to battle for a rotation spot or take a turn to rest one of the five starters.
The rotation outlier – the weird kid who eats paste and wears Dungeons & Dragons t-shirts is Steven Wright. He is an outlier not just because his fastball averages 83.5 mph, but because he throws a knuckleball, and throws it 90% of the time. There just aren’t many knuckleball pitchers in baseball anymore. Partly because it is a hard pitch to master, but also because pitchers who throw 83.5 mph just don’t get drafted very often. The Red Sox are more open to knuckleball pitchers since they experienced success with knuckleballer Tim Wakefield who won 186 games for Boston between 1995 and 2011. Knuckleball pitchers don’t follow the normal development curve of most pitchers often getting better as they get older. Probably more than any other pitch the knuckleball is a feel pitch that you don’t throw hard so the more you throw it, the better you get with the added bonus of not wearing out your arm. Noted knuckleballers Hoyt Wilhelm and Phil Niekro pitched until they were 49 and 48 respectively while Wilbur Wood led the league in starts four years in a row from 1972 through 1975 and innings pitched in 1972 and 1973. Wood would have continued to crank out absurdly high innings pitched totals if Ron LeFlore hadn’t shattered his kneecap with a line drive early in the 1976 season effectively ending his career.
Wright is 31 now and had only started 26 games in the majors when the season began. It would be fascinating to see Wright or another knuckleballer pitch more than 375 innings like Wilbur Wood did in 1972. Of course the innings would have to be effective to have any point, but if Wright at 31 has learned to more or less control the knuckleball then he could save the bullpen and starters by pitching every four days, plus anytime one of the regulars had to miss a turn. He could also serve as the mop-up man allowing the Red Sox to keep more position players on the bench. His numbers would likely suffer from a usage pattern like that, but if he and the team came to an understanding about his stats and signed him to a long term contract, it could change the way the Red Sox pitching staff goes about its business. The beauty of the knuckleball is that nobody, including the pitcher, knows how the ball will break once it leaves his hand so batters can’t get used to the pitch since it is always different. The benefit is that a knuckleball pitcher could throw complete games or pitch on back to back days since the “3rd time through the lineup” problem that most pitchers face doesn’t really apply to them.
As to Wright’s performance to date, last season was his first chance as a regular (at least for a piece of the season) in a major league rotation so the sample size is small – nine starts. But Wright showed that he is capable of baffling major leaguers with his junk to the tune of a career FIP of 3.82 while striking out 7.3 batters per nine, walking 3.2 batters per nine, and allowing only 7.9 hits per nine. His minor league numbers have shown good control, especially for someone who throws the knuckleball as often as Wright does, so with more time in the majors his walk numbers should come down. So far, Wright has pitched like an All-Star (which he was this July) winning 13 games in his first 22 starts and leading the league in home runs allowed at a minuscule 0.5 jacks per nine innings, while compiling an ERA of 3.01.
At age 22, Eduardo Rodriguez was an epiphany for the Red Sox last season. After only eight starts in triple-A last season he was pressed into service and put a headlock on a starting rotation spot with his 105 pitch debut where he struck out seven and only allowed three hits and a pair of walks while not allowing a run. Caveat here – the guy was only 22 so there were certainly some rough spots, but his overall numbers were good and he finished strong with six quality starts, an ERA in the mid-threes in his last nine starts, making up the months of August and September, and four wins in his last five starts. He does it with a mid-90’s fastball and a change-up slider combination that is still a work in progress – remember his age. It’s not like Rodriguez came out of nowhere as he hasn’t posted a FIP above 3.89 since 2011 and was a top 100 prospect, but relying on a 22 year old to anchor your starting rotation, which is what Rodriguez did last season, is a big risk as they go through the ups and down that most rookie pitchers battle when they first come up. Rodriguez started 2016 on the disabled list with a knee injury and has not looked especially sharp since he came back up. His last month has been better with an ERA in the threes, so maybe he is back on track to provide a much needed number four starter to go with Price, Porcello, and Wright.
The starter that the Red Sox added at the trade deadline, Drew Pomeranz, is on his fifth team at the age of 27. Teams want him for his potential but seemingly sour on him quickly when he doesn’t show what they expect from him. The Padres got his best half season of work and wisely, according to most baseball analysts, flipped him for a great prospect (Anderson Espinoza) in what might be the best deal for a seller in this season’s trade market. Pomeranz pitched one heck of a half season of baseball making the All Star team with his 2.47 ERA, 1.059 WHIP, and minuscule 5.9 hits allowed her nine. He also limited opponents to 0.7 home runs per nine innings while striking out 10.1 bat-wielders per game. It certainly helps to pitch in an excellent pitcher’s park, but it should also be noted that Pomeranz put up even better numbers on the road than at home. The tall Texan also made some changes to his approach that support his stats looking more real than mirage. He added a third pitch to his fastball/curveball approach – a cut fastball. Starters with only two offerings aren’t going to fool as many batters the third time around a lineup, so the additional pitch makes it easier to believe in Pomeranz’ improvement.
Since coming to Boston there has been chatter that he had some arm woes when the Padres traded him that might account for his 6.20 ERA in his first four starts with his new club. His last start might ease those fears a bit and Pomeranz is only 27 so nerves might also be part of the rough start. He went from a last place team to a pennant race with one of the best organizations in the history of baseball – you’d be nervous too. Whether he is just rotation depth or a legitimate number three or four starter might determine whether the Boston club makes a push deep into the post-season.
Brian Johnson, a lefty at triple-A, and Henry Owens, another lefty at triple-A, are the two arms waiting in reserve who have seen action this season at different points. Owens has a higher perceived ceiling because of his stuff, and had 12 starts with the parent club going into the season, but sometimes familiarity breeds contempt. Owens has been inconsistent, getting hammered at times including eight homers allowed in 64.33 big league innings through 2015. He got off to an excellent start in triple-A with good k-rates, and at 23 the Sox aren’t going to give up on him anytime soon. Johnson’s stuff isn’t as pretty as Owens’ but his results have been excellent at every stop. Johnson only had one emergency start in the majors to start 2016 so there wasn’t much anyone could say about his body of work at the major league level. Two numbers that stand out from Johnson’s time on the farm is a 6.5 hits per nine rate, and a minuscule 0.4 home runs per nine rate. Owens has similar rates (6.7 hits per nine and 0.6 homers), but with worse control and better strikeout numbers – Johnson has walked one fewer batter per nine and struck out a batter and a half fewer. Better control might give Johnson the edge in an extended trial although Owens has more experience now. If either man makes 20 starts in the majors this year, it will probably be a sign that the Red Sox rotation went horribly wrong, but that is not an indictment of either man’s future value. Both could easily be rotation fixtures someday.
In the pre-season, if you had told Sox fans that Clay Buchholz would fail so badly that he would be demoted to the pen and David Price would have an ERA over 4.00, they would have probably started sobbing into their Curt Schilling bloody sock hankies figuring that the Red Sox would be near the bottom of the division. Thanks to Steven Wright and Rick Porcello, who between them have won 28 of the Sox first 61 games, the Boston club is only 2.5 as of August 11th. If Eduardo Rodriguez can maintain his recent return to usefulness, Price can lower his ERA into the 3’s, and one of Pomeranz, Owens, or Brian Johnson can chip in, then the Sox might be able to forge a deep post-season run on the backs of a tremendous offense and acceptable pitching. As things stand today, the Red Sox hold the second wild card spot, but with two teams within 1.5 games of them. If none of the rotation improvements come to pass, then the Sox are doomed to just miss out on the playoffs. Then they will have to hope for one of their young solid arms to mature for next year.