BOSTON – On this weird, upside-down Sunday afternoon at Fenway Park, where the atmosphere went from festive to funereal back to festive, where a pair of guys lambasted on talk radio daily as overpaid bums were hailed as heroes, where the Boston Red Sox saved their season, it was easy to get lost in the myopia of the day. This city can do that, whirl with such ferocity that it drags anything in its path into a sporting vortex that churns on forever.
Tougher to recognize was the paradigm shift continuing in Game 3 of the American League Division Series between the Red Sox and Houston Astros. Evolution in baseball typically mimics nature, so slow it’s almost imperceptible. A little more than 200 innings into this postseason, the game is markedly, blatantly different, embracing playoff baseball’s urgency and giving a full-throated endorsement to a yank-the-starter, rely-on-reliever model long endorsed by the sabermetric movement.
Perhaps the most shocking part it isn’t the actual strategy itself, which is logical and cogent. It’s that barely a whimper has been uttered in opposition, the old dogs more than tolerant of the new tricks.
“I almost wonder if we’re getting to a point,” Red Sox VP of pitching development Brian Bannister said, “where roles aren’t defined. I’m not a starter. I’m not a reliever. In the postseason, I get outs.”
About a dozen feet away from Bannister, who stood in the middle of Boston’s clubhouse, was the locker of David Price, one of the aforementioned so-called bums. He was no bum Sunday. He joined the game in the fourth inning and left in the seventh. He pitched four scoreless innings and held the Astros at bay long enough for his teammates to hang half a dozen insurances runs. He wasn’t the winning pitcher in the Red Sox’s 10-3 victory over the Astros to force a Game 4 in the best-of-five division series. He was the best pitcher, a designation with which nobody could quibble.
And still, as satisfying as Price wanted this to be – he called it his best moment in a Red Sox uniform “by far” – more than a smidgen of discomfort over his role remained. A tender elbow sidelined Price for a majority of the season and prompted Boston to stash him in the bullpen down the stretch and in at least the division series. The Red Sox guaranteed $217 million to Price to start games like these, and instead their Game 3 starter was Doug Fister, who lasted for four outs.
In came Joe Kelly to wheedle the Astros into making five outs, and after Rafael Devers joined Miguel Cabrera, Manny Machado, Bryce Harper and Andruw Jones among the five youngest players to hit a postseason home run, the lead was the Red Sox’s and the ball Price’s. His scoreless 2 2/3-inning outing in Game 1 foreshadowed something even bigger here – a blistering fastball and mean cutter and confident changeup. He was not a starter. He was the bulwark that held while Hanley Ramirez – the other so-called bum – was leading a ferocious bottom-of-the-lineup attack with a 4-for-4 day. He was a weapon.
And for all the import of those four innings, the meaning of every pitch, every out in October, Price couldn’t allow himself to be peeled away from what he knows.
“If I throw well out of the bullpen,” he said, “that doesn’t mean anything.”
Surely that is news to the pitchers who have thrown a majority of innings this postseason. When Bannister alludes to no starters, no relievers, just pitchers, he does so to destigmatize the feeling of inferiority starting pitchers have when they come out of the bullpen. And that’s just obnoxious, not only because relief pitchers perform better, as a whole, than starters but because this postseason they’ve thrown 52.6 percent of innings.
If that number seems high, it is. Never before has baseball seen anything close to it. Last year, as Indians manager Terry Francona revolutionized bullpen usage and rode his makeshift pitching staff to the seventh game of the World Series, postseason reliever usage reached an all-time high at 43.3 percent. This season, it’s nearly 10 percent higher, with playoff starters lasting an average of 4.2 innings per start.
Price’s issue is pride, and that’s understandable, seeing as he has led the league in innings pitched and drew the sort of salary he does because starters who go deep into games bring value. More than that is his reputation as a starter who folds in October. Price despises his history, and it’s easy to see why. As a reliever in the postseason, he is 2-0 with a 2.35 ERA. As a starter: 0-8 with a 5.74 ERA.
“I’ve got to do this as a starter,” Price said. “I know that, y’all know that, y’all write it.”
Not here. Price as a reliever used in high-leverage spots sounds perfectly reasonable.
“I mean, I want to help this team win right now,” Price said. “If it’s coming out of the pen, I’m going to do it. If it’s playing center field, I’ll do it. It doesn’t matter to me. I want to win. That’s why I came here.”
That said …
“They know I want to start,” Price said. “They know I want the ball.”
Pride only hurts, said a wise man named Marsellus Wallace, and if the Red Sox can figure out a way to get past the Astros, and then a way to stabilize their rotation, keeping Price in an out-making role isn’t altogether crazy. So long as his place is defined and not vacillating, as it was during his last flirtation with the bullpen, during the 2015 playoffs in Toronto, shame need not enter into the equation.
The change in pitching, even over the last 10 years, is acute. Velocity has ticked up across the board. Short-spurt relief pitching has emerged to the point where teams can send an elevator between the major league team and Triple-A to import fresh arms. Pitching always was hard. It’s something different altogether today.
“The thing is, every pitch a pitcher throws has to be his best pitch,” said Bannister, a starter from 2006-10. “We used to conserve, hold stuff back. Now, as a starter, your stuff is being compared to every reliever’s. And as soon as you reach a point in the game where you can bring in a better pitcher, you quickly become old news. That’s how starters are feeling. And it’s tough to come to grips with that because guys have started their whole life.
“One thing we’re seeing about the playoffs is it’s becoming a team event. I love the Roy Halladay games and the Curt Schilling games and all those nostalgic things. But right now, every swing counts, and every pitch counts, and it’s about who can put the best quality out there. It’s almost like watching a Little League World Series game where there are pitch limits. It’s the best guy throwing at all times.”
You saw it in the regular season, with the average start a record-low 5.5 innings. And in Chris Sale, the major league innings leader, finishing with a record-low 214 1/3. And in the general quick triggers adopted across the game and continuing into October, even when pitchers are dealing. Masahiro Tanaka, gone in the must-win Game 3 of the other ALDS after seven shutout innings on 92 pitches. CC Sabathia, gone following 77 pitches the previous game.
One of the best arguments against Price’s desire to start is that a starter simply isn’t what he believes it to be anymore. He may romanticize the idea of a guy who goes nine innings, but that guy is a relic.
Price said, with all kinds of passion, “I can do this as a starter, too, I just haven’t done it yet. Period.” And, sure, OK. He hasn’t, but that doesn’t mean he can’t. Even granting him that, he almost made the case against him being shoehorned back into the rotation to prove something: “Pitching suits me well, and that’s what I did. It has nothing to do with relieving or starting. I just threw the ball well today.”
Yeah. That about covers baseball in 2017. Red Sox manager John Farrell asked Price before the game how many pitches he could throw, and Price said 80, and Farrell kept him in for 57, his most since July 22. Farrell was asked if Price could pitch in Game 5 and said “I would anticipate that he would say he’s ready to go,” and Price was asked when he was available and said, “I’ll feel fine tomorrow.”
As much as he yearns to be a starter, as much as he speaks like a reliever, this version of David Price is something different, something in between. He’s a pitcher, and he’s there to get outs, the only currency in this game that looks more and more askew by the day.