(Mis)handling David Price

David Price now has a victory to his name in the American League Division Series, but it’s probably not how anyone imagined he would get it. In yesterday’s game, with the Blue Jays up by a score of 7-1 in the bottom of the fifth inning, manager John Gibbons took out R.A. Dickey in favor of his staff ace, installing Price into a game that was, except in the case of a cataclysm, already well in hand. Price threw 50 pitches, giving up six hits and three runs, thereby eliminating him from starting Wednesday’s deciding Game 5 in Toronto.

Yesterday, Dave wrote about how the Jays shouldn’t use Price out of the bullpen during Game 4. That article was predicated on a simple assumption: that the score of the game would be close, and a high leverage situation would push Gibbons to go to the best pitcher he had available. That method of thinking is an understandable one, and a decision many managers would make with little hesitation.

That wasn’t the case in Game 4, however. To illustrate, take a look at the Win Expectancy chart for yesterday’s game, with a highlight on the point at which Price was summoned from the bullpen:

Screen Shot 2015-10-13 at 8.44.28 AM

After Robinson Chirinos singled to center with one out and Delino DeShields then flied out to center — the former being the event that sealed Dickey’s fate — the Rangers’ Win Expectancy was just 3.2%. If the argument is that Price was brought in to stifle any perceived danger, there’s isn’t really a good case for it: Chirinos’ single was a blip, a faintest hint of danger, and Dickey had been pitching well in the game up until then.

There’s one hypothetical situation in which bringing Price into Game 4 would’ve made sense. Given that he had a planned throwing session on Monday night anyway, the Jays could, in practice, have simply let him get that work in on the mound, hopefully yielding a few outs from the equivalent of in-game side work. One could even argue the game was low leverage enough to merit that approach at the time he came in. The Jays could have even used Price and Marcus Stroman back-to-back for a couple innings to help bridge the gap to the late-inning relievers.

We know what happened instead: Price pitched three relatively ineffective innings. This was the strangest scenario, as the Jays now play Game 5 with the prospect of an at-best limited Price out of the bullpen — not Price on full rest, or even on short rest. The management of the team’s best pitcher during Game 4 now seems like a pre-planned move, with Price coming into the game no matter the situation or score.

This is not necessarily meant to decry John Gibbons’ managerial decisions, as he knows his team and obviously has a plan related to his starting pitchers. Marcus Stroman will start Game 5, and that might have been decided before Game 4 even began. However, the fact that it seems like there was only one plan — to use Price in Game 4 no matter what — is puzzling, at best.

That type of inflexibility leans toward the detrimental when we put it into the context of winning the series, which is the main goal here. The best chance of winning Game 5 is to have Price on as much rest as possible, and when Game 4 is already basically in hand with a score of 7-1, you don’t need Price, period. After the game, Gibbons gave his reasons for making the decision:

“We had a nice little lead. One thing I’ve learned over the years, is that the best way to win game is if you don’t let a team get back into it. I know what kind of offense they have, and I was really focusing on Choo… I told Price today, ‘if we get you up today, you’re going in.’ Last night, he was kind of up and down, up and down — we couldn’t do that again.”

From this statement, Gibbons was most worried about Choo hitting a home run off Dickey and the Rangers being right back in the game. Gibbons went on to say that Brett Cecil and Aaron Loup were injured/unavailable, so he felt Price was the best option against a lefty. In some ways, sure, this is sound logic, but the Blue Jays also have a number of relievers who are effective against left-handed hitting: Ryan Tepera, Cecil’s roster replacement (and owner of a reverse platoon split as a right-hander this year) is just one example. The bottom line seems to be that Price warmed up, so Price went in.

Gibbons might also have simply preferred to go with Stroman in Game 5 with a fully rested bullpen (sans Price) for the deciding game. You can’t blame him for this based simply on performance: Price has struggled in all of his recent postseason appearances (including Game 4, it should be noted), and Stroman looked good overall in his Game 2 start with the exception of a rocky first two innings. You can get a pretty quick understanding of some of Price’s struggles this postseason by looking at a heat map of his October pitches (courtesy of Baseball Savant):


Price’s trademark control and command simply hasn’t shown up yet this October, something that is illustrated both in the number of pitches leaking over the heart of the plate (two of which were hit for home runs), as well as his two walks and two hit by pitches during his Game 1 start. The decision to intentionally eschew any sort of contribution from Price in Game 5 based on his recent performance seems like an improbable and extreme line of thinking (given that Price is without a doubt the team’s best pitcher), but crazier things have been decided by major league managers.

In the end, the decisions have been made, and the Blue Jays will have to win a deciding game without any help from their ace. It’s a controversial decision no matter which way you look at it, and there will always be questions about the way Price was handled in Game 4 if the Jays end up losing the series. At best, using Price for three innings in Game 4 secured the win. At worst, the Jays just wasted Price’s bullets on a war that didn’t need to be fought. Gibbons managed based on an old adage — that you manage one game at a time in the postseason —  but the Blue Jays are trying to win a series. Their chance of doing so decreases without their best pitcher available in Game 5.

Owen Watson writes for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. Follow him on Twitter @ohwatson.

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8 years ago

without a doubt? There’s no denying Price is amazing but I think you’re selling Stroman short, as he’s been phenomenal. Since they are very different pitchers, it’s very well possible that Stroman simply matches up better.

8 years ago
Reply to  Woodman

Correct. There is never a “without a doubt”. Any assessment of a pitcher’s talent comes with uncertainty. The closer they are in talent, and arguably both are very good pitchers, the more likely it is that you can interchange the order of talent. We “think” that Price is the better pitcher, but there is no doubt that there is some doubt.