Like any good Moneyball-reading millennial, I used to mock the notion that some baseball players inherently perform better in big moments than others. I believed that kind of neanderthal mindset was for the scouts who evaluate players based on their girlfriends’ looks, not general managers with Ivy League degrees. Baseball history is littered with great players who were deemed unable to perform in the postseason until they could, with Randy Johnson and Alex Rodriguez coming to mind as the two most recent examples.
I carried this thinking into my mid-20s, and even this summer, when I said several times on the air David Price was due for a good playoff run. Sure, Price was winless in nine playoff starts, but the Cy Young award winner was dealing in the second half. He went 7-1 over his last 13 starts of the season, posting a 2.72 ERA and striking out 85 batters in 79.1 innings. Price even mixed in a quality start against the vaunted Yankees, allowing just two runs over six innings to complete the Red Sox’ sweep Aug. 5 –– roughly one month after his now-infamous Yankee Stadium meltdown that preceded his stellar run.
Plus, Price even pitched well in the postseason last year. Sure, he was working out of the bullpen, but what difference does it make? Pitching is pitching, regardless of whether it’s the second inning or eighth.
Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Price’s horrific outing against the Yankees in Game 2 Saturday –– 1.2 innings, three runs, two home runs –– did more than cement his time in Boston so far as an abject failure. It propelled me, the boy who used to pray to Scott Hatteburg and Erubiel Durazo at night, to finally believe in clutch. There is no other explanation for how Price could be so good in seemingly every situation, except when he’s starting games in October.
Price’s playoff numbers are probably committed to memory for every Red Sox fan, but they’re worth writing out once more. In 10 postseason starts, the most expensive pitcher in baseball history is 0-9 with a 6.03 ERA. Even worse, in 12 starts against the Yankees with the Red Sox, Price has an ERA of 7.95. This year, he allowed 24 runs in 17.1 innings with 11 home runs. It seems like the only hits Gary Sanchez has collected all season long are Price cutters left over the middle of the plate, which the slumping catcher manages to send 400-plus feet every single time.
There is a growing group of researchers who believe the clutch gene exists. As Yahoo! Sports’ Jeff Passan outlines, some scientists regard it as a muscle, which is “capable of being built and likewise atrophying.”
If that’s the case, then Price’s “clutch muscle” has shriveled up like George Costanza in a cold swimming pool. It’s at the point where the Red Sox can’t consider starting him for another playoff game, despite the platitudes Alex Cora offered in the wake of Price’s latest monstrosity.
Even discounting the science, it makes sense that some baseball players are prone to choking in pressure-packed spots. Think of your own life, and how you always know the right thing to say, except when you’re trying to go home with a partner of choice at the end of a night. The examples are endless.
Price can talk all he wants about looking forward to getting the ball again. But the sample size is now large enough to say it isn’t needed. Price is only one of two pitchers in baseball history who’s winless in 10 or more playoff starts, with Al Leiter being the other one. The Red Sox’ $217 million man is probably the worst postseason starting pitcher of all-time, and making matters worse, two of his worst ever outings have come with the Red Sox. In the 2016 ALDS against Cleveland, Price only lasted 3.1 innings and surrendered five runs.
It’s a sad situation for the Red Sox, who still owe Price $127 million over four years. But nothing is sadder than watching Price fail again in October. He just can’t do it. Simple as that.