David Price knew Boston, and he knew the American League East. He’d pitched at Fenway Park 12 times as a visitor before he signed with the Boston Red Sox as the biggest acquisition of the baseball winter.
His Fenway ERA in his last six starts as a regular season visitor: 1.59.
His ERA in his first four Fenway starts after signing with the Red Sox: 8.34.
It’s not always easy being the new guy in town, especially when being the new guy comes with expectations as big as a $217 million contract.
Things got better for Price, at least until another October disappointment. He comes to spring training this year not as a free-agent flop but as a significant part of a team that fully expects to defend its AL East title.
One reason for the optimism: the new new guy in town.
Chris Sale didn’t cost $217 million, but trading for him did cost the Red Sox two of baseball’s best prospects (Yoan Moncada and Michael Kopech), plus two other players. He spent the first seven years of his career in the AL Central with the Chicago White Sox, and while two of his three career starts at Fenway went well, the other time he gave up seven runs.
Now Sale is this year’s Price, the left-handed ace brought in as the biggest acquisition of a baseball winter.
It’s not exactly the same thing. Price was brought in to head a rotation that seemed to lack an ace. Sale adds to a rotation that already includes both Price and Rick Porcello, the 2016 AL Cy Young winner.
But this is Boston, and if Sale has a 6.00 ERA nearly six weeks into the season—as Price did last year—it’s not going to go over well. It wouldn’t go over well anywhere, to be honest, but this is Boston, and he’d hear about it even more.
Price eventually got his ERA down to 3.99, pitched 230 innings and won 17 games, but the October headline in the Boston Globe still read: “David Price not second-guessing decision to come to Boston.”
And they expected he would?
The Boston decision didn’t belong to Sale—he was traded—but you can bet he’d rather not read any headlines later this year questioning whether the Red Sox regret their decision.
So how does he avoid it? How does he avoid the Price pitfalls?
“Sale just has to relax and pitch,” said one executive familiar with him from his time in the AL Central.
Even in high-pressure Boston, Sale should be able to do that. His Chicago experience suggests he can handle distractions.
In spring training a year ago, Sale put himself in the middle of the Adam LaRoche controversy. As colleague Scott Miller detailed in a column for Bleacher Report, Sale said White Sox players were “bold-faced lied to” by club vice president Kenny Williams.
The resulting mess bothered Sale so much he won his first nine starts, with a 1.58 ERA.
Fast-forward to July and the night Sale took scissors to throwback uniforms he didn’t want to wear, creating the summer’s oddest mess. In his next three starts, Sale had a 3.00 ERA with 21 strikeouts in 21 innings.
The issues will be different in Boston now that Sale has left a White Sox team that has gone four years without a winning record and never made the playoffs in Sale’s time in Chicago. The Red Sox are coming off a 93-win season, one they fully expect to match or improve on in 2017.
Sale can draw off that energy, but he can’t get caught up in the expectations. He can’t begin the season the way Price began 2016, struggling to make pitches when he needed them and then struggling for explanations demanded after every loss.
He figured out some of it, with a 2.47 ERA over the next eight starts. But the early struggles meant Price never completely escaped the impression that his first season with the Red Sox was a disappointment, a letdown.
Sale doesn’t necessarily need to repeat the lightning-fast start to the season he had with the White Sox last year. But it wouldn’t hurt.
They’ll be watching him, and watching closely. They’ll want to see how he adjusts to Boston, how he adjusts to the AL East, how he adjusts to pitching for what should be a winning team.
With the White Sox, 17 of Sale’s final 25 starts came immediately after a game the team lost,
“I think it got to a point where every time he pitched, he felt like he had to win,” teammate David Robertson told Abraham for a December story in the Globe.
Good, because in Boston, every game feels like a game the Red Sox have to win.
David Price can tell him about that.
Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.
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