It didn't take long for the dominoes to start falling after Jordan Zimmermann signed with the Tigers, and one of the biggest dominoes was next in line, with David Price signing the richest pitching contract in history.
Before we get going, I wanted to mention that the historical mechanics grades come from the archives of Raising Aces articles or previous editions of the Starting Pitcher Guide. All of the grades are based on historical scores rather than a post-hoc analysis in the present day.
The Player: David Price
The Terms: Boston Red Sox for 7 years, $217 million
As if he hadn't spent enough of his career in the AL East, Price returns to play for his third club in the division, this time leading a Red Sox ballclub that has the talent on-hand for a quick turnaround and the financial means to patch the holes on the mound. Boston signed the lefty to the richest contract ever given to a pitcher (at least until Zack Greinke signs), shoring up the biggest weakness on the roster at an average cost of $31 million per annum through 2022. The Sox have locked in his age 30-to-36 seasons, but Price he can opt out after 2018, in case a 32-year old Price has maintained his worth while the market exploded – a best-case scenario for the Sawx, as it means that he was worth the $30 million that Price is owed for each of the next three three years.
The final snapshot of 2015 had David Price getting hit hard in the playoffs, losing the trust of his manager in the process. Granted, John Gibbons had been Price's manager for all of three months at that point, but the playoff struggles were nothing new to the southpaw, as Price has given up a 5.12 ERA in 63.3 career innings of postseason play with 11 homeruns allowed. His proclivity for the strike zone has left Price occasionally vulnerable to high-contact lineups (like that of the Royals), but Price has been able to continually develop his game over the years to present a new challenge for opposing hitters seemingly each time he takes the mound.
Left-handed batters haven't stood much of a chance against Price, with a career slash line of .220/.265/.312, and he has enjoyed pitching in Fenway, where he has a 1.95 ERA in 74.0 career innings (11 starts). He has also finished in the top two of the Cy Young voting three times in the last six years, including the second place finish of 2015, and the historical trends of free agency suggest that the Red Sox took advantage of a rare opportunity.
*He threw a slider in 2009-10, but converted to a cutter in 2011
The above chart lists the numbers from his past seven seasons, but it does not include his 14-inning cameo out of the bullpen in September 2008. The velocity spiked in Price's Cy Young-winning season of 2012, and though he suffered a stiff drop-off following that peak, he has maintained a pitch speed that qualifies as plus regardless of handedness (and gets an extra bump for his being a lefty). Back in 2009-10 he threw a slider, but he has taken off a bit of supination from that pitch to throw a 90-mph cutter instead. He began throwing the cutter with regularity in 2011 and over the past four seasons it has been his weapon of choice on one-sixth of the pitches that Price throws.
The lefty has morphed his arsenal along the way, and the most stark development has been with his changeup. The pitch has gone from after-thought to a premier platoon weapon, and in 2015 the change came into play against left-handers as well. Part of what makes Price so effective is his command of a four-pitch arsenal (five if you count the sinker) that he will mix with the same frequency regardless of count, rather than fall into a trap of early fastballs and late secondaries.
Mechanics Report Card
Try not to get too spoiled from these early reports on Price and Zimmermann; I only give out about 10 A's per year, and Zimm and Price have been two of those ten for the past several seasons. Price now pitches from the stretch all the time, simplifying his process to augment excellent repetition. He nestles into the set position whether pitching from the windup or the stretch, and his rhythm-altering technique has made life hell on opposing base stealers – only two runners even attempted to steal second against Price last season, and both were caught. His unpredictability also makes it tough for this evaluator to get a precise reading on the stopwatch when timing his stride, because it's difficult to anticipate when the front foot will lift off the ground.
His balance took a hit this last season due to a more pronounced lean-back during his stride, tilting his Z-plane balance toward second base. The lean-back has been present for a few years and was a bit exaggerated last season, but his mechanics have undergone year-to-year improvement for most of his career and I would not be surprised to see him regain previous levels of mechanical efficiency. For example, his posture still peaks at 65-grade when all is going right, but the presence of occasional 55's and the abundance of pitches with 60-grade spine-tilt lands him five points lower than in 2014.
Unlike yesterday's example of Jordan Zimmermann, Price lacks any mechanical precursors or scars to raise concern from an injury perspective. Elbow drag is not an issue, and a strained triceps from 2013 is the only wart on his injury record.
The Verdict: The Rich Get Richer
Signing any pitcher for seven years is a serious gamble, and that's before we tackle the $217 million that's on the line. That said, there was no other opportunity to make such a significant upgrade to a team's rotation, as Price has proven himself to sabrmetricians, to scouts and to mechanics tools like me. He was the best pitcher to be on the free market in quite some time, and though it will be nearly impossible for Price to live up to that contract, perhaps no team had a more pressing need to make such a major upgrade to the rotation. Papi is on his farewell tour, Pedroia is past his prime and the next wave of Sox are primed to take over Beantown. Price will be part of that renaissance, led by last year's free agent hauls of Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval in addition to homegrown cogs such as Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts. The mound was a disaster that had to be addressed if the last-place club of last season was going to contend in 2016. It's a move that only a handful of teams can afford to make, but if the club can foot the bill on a $200 million free agent then the Red Sox made a strong choice.
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