It's too soon to conclude that David Price is back to being an ace again. He's one start into his 2018 season. That's the smallest of small sample sizes.
It's not too soon to be bullish about his chances, however.
Price went into his regular-season debut on Friday at Tropicana Field with the task of getting the Boston Red Sox back on track following their late collapse against the Tampa Bay Rays on Opening Day. The veteran left-hander did just that by pacing a 1-0 victory with seven scoreless innings. He struck out five, walked nobody and allowed only four hits.
And he did all this with only 76 pitches.
It wasn't Price's best performance since he joined the team on a seven-year, $217 million contract in December 2015; a couple of his starts from 2016 are highest in the running for that honor.
But Friday might be Price's most promising start for the Red Sox.
By now, it's not news that Price hasn't had the best of times in Boston.
The 32-year-old was very much an ace when he first inked his megadeal. He'd made his fifth All-Star team and won his second American League ERA title (2.45) in 2015. He also came close to winning his second Cy Young Award, as he finished runner-up in the voting to Dallas Keuchel.
But in 2016, Price could only muster an un-ace-like 3.99 ERA in the regular season before subsequently flopping in his one and only postseason start (3.1 IP, 6 H, 5 ER). Then in 2017, he was limited to 16 appearances by an elbow injury that proved difficult to shake.
Just as frustrating as Price's elbow was the status of his mood. It bounced back and forth between sour and outright hostile. Rock bottom was his airplane spat with Hall of Famer and Red Sox broadcaster Dennis Eckersley, who came away as the decisive victor in the court of public opinion.
Thus, Price came into 2018 with a to-do checklist that could have been copied from a problematic prospect:
- One: behave
- Two: stay healthy
- Three: pitch better
To the first end, it's to Price's credit that last year's drama already feels like water under the bridge. According to ESPN's Scott Lauber, Price confessed that his wounded arm had him feeling "mad at the world." All he wants to do now is move on.
"I could've handled things better last year, absolutely," Price said, per Lauber. "But I didn't and I've moved on. I feel like I've gotten better from it. I've learned from it."
To the second end, Price's elbow has shown no ill effects from last year's scare. The Red Sox deserve their share of the credit for that. They devised a program that allowed Price to take it slow in spring training, resulting in his (per MLB.com's Ian Browne) feeling "better and better" as the season neared.
To the third end...well, Price didn't have to do much more than pick up where he left off.
He finished 2016 with a 3.39 ERA over his final 28 regular-season appearances and then put up a 3.38 ERA when he was healthy enough to pitch in 2017. That's not a track to deviate from; it's one to stay on.
And so it went on Friday.
The one nit to pick with Price's outing is his failure to light up the radar gun. According to Baseball Savant, Statcast tracked his average two-seam fastball at 92.4 mph. That's down from the 93.4 mph that he averaged on the pitch in 2016, much less the mid-90s heat that he featured as a younger man.
But who needs a cannon when you've got a paint brush?
Price dominated not by blowing Rays hitters away, but by keeping them off-balance with a steady diet of sinkers and cutters on the edges of the strike zone. Here comes a GIF to beautifully illustrate this concept:
Price will need to maintain sharp command if he expects this approach to keep working all season.
Given who we're talking about here, however, that falls well within the boundaries of "doable." Price owns one of Major League Baseball's highest strike rates (67 percent) since 2010. He was at it again Friday, throwing 55 of 76 pitches for strikes.
Rather than the power pitcher he used to be, the best way to now perceive Price is as a facsimile of Jon Lester—another lefty who lost his velocity once he crossed over into his 30s but, because of exceptional sequencing and command of fastballs with different movements, authored Cy Young-caliber seasons in 2014 and 2016.
Should Price follow that example, the Red Sox stand to win a lot of games on the strength of their one-two punch. As it is, Price and Chris Sale (the runner-up in last year's AL Cy Young vote to Corey Kluber) have already combined for 13 scoreless innings and 14 strikeouts.
Boston isn't without concerns elsewhere in its starting rotation. Rick Porcello has his own rebounding to do in the No. 3 slot. The stability of the back end hinges on the health of Drew Pomeranz, Eduardo Rodriguez and Steven Wright.
But for now, these are little more than nits to pick. What matters for the moment is that Price looks like he can be what the Red Sox need him to be.
All he has to do now is keep it up.
Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference.