When I say the phrase "Randy Johnson playoffs" what is the first thought that comes to your mind? It's probably the 2001 playoffs where he was named co-MVP of the World Series that put the finishing touches on a dominant postseason. Johnson needed to have a big October that year. In his three postseasons prior to '01 Johnson was 0-5 with a 4.58 ERA in five starts. The point here is that going into 2001 Johnson was not thought of as a big game pitcher but he was able to change the narrative that October.
That's where we are at with David Price. The narrative is that he is a good to great regular season pitcher that freezes up when the bright lights come on. The problem is that's a lazy narrative. It's used in sports all the time. The high priced player that isn't clutch. We like to break guys down into categories. So much is expected of Price because he signed a $217 million contract, the largest ever for a pitcher, that anything short of dominating every time out is a failure.
This isn't to say Price hasn't been bad in the playoffs. When you look at the numbers they are pretty terrible. In six years he is 2-7 with a 5.12 ERA. Both those wins actually came in relief appearances, which means that when David Price starts a postseason game his team has never won.
It actually started out promising for him. During Tampa Bay's 2008 World Series run Price pitched out of relief in the playoffs, totaling 5.2 innings between the ALCS and WS. He gave up just one run, struck out eight, and notched the save in a 3-1 game seven victory over the defending champion Red Sox.
His first playoff test as a starter came in 2010 against the Texas Rangers. Price pitched games 1 and 5 of the ALDS, losing both while registering a 4.97 ERA in 12.2 innings. In 2011 he pitched against those same Rangers, giving up three runs in 6.2 innings in a losing effort. Against the Red Sox in the 2013 ALDS Price got shelled again, giving up seven runs in seven innings.
In 2014 Price had the best playoff start of his career. Against the Orioles in the ALDS he gave up just two runs in eight innings, striking out six in the process. Unfortunately the good times didn't last long. In last year's four playoff appearances he gave up a total of 16 earned runs in just 23.1 innings.
When you break it all down what jumps out is that the good starts are fine and that the bad starts are really bad. Those really bad ones are inflating the ERA in a small sample. It's not as if he hasn't had success in the playoffs. He has quality starts in four of his eight starts. He got a save in game seven of the 2008 ALCS with everything on the line. He had a dominant eight inning start against the Orioles in 2014. His last start in 2015 was encouraging as well. He gave up just three runs in 6.2 innings with eight strikeouts.
Furthermore 63.1 innings of playoff baseball simply isn't enough of a sample size to draw any meaningful conclusions from. That's a little less than a third of a full season and as I said before the few really bad starts are inflating the numbers. The 5.12 ERA isn't encouraging of course but Price's ratio stats aren't that far enough from his regular season ones. He has a 8.4 K/9 rate in the playoffs compared to 8.6 in the regular season. He actually has a lower walk rate in the playoffs, at just 1.7/9 innings in the postseason compared to 2.6/9 in the regular season.
That means the playoff damage done to Price has come via hits and the long ball. In the postseason Price has given up 8.8 hits per nine compared to 8.0 in the regular season. He has given up 1.6 homers per nine in the playoffs compared to 0.9 in the regular season. This could be due to a number of reasons. Maybe it's fatigue. Maybe it's mental. Or maybe it's just a small sample size and will correct itself as he continues to pitch in October. The point is we don't know. At least not yet.
There are two more points that need to be made. The first is that while the ERA is what it is, Price's win/loss record in the playoffs is misleading. 0-7 in eight starts isn't ideal but we know that wins are a flawed stat. In his eight starts his team has scored run totals of 1, 1, 3, 4, 1, 3, 3, and 3. Maybe if his teams had given him more leads he would have some playoff wins and the narrative on him wouldn't be as overblown as it is.
The final point is that we often view these situations depending on how you start. For example, Price started 2016 poorly and even though he had a dominant midseason run fans only remembered the slow start. If Price had begun his playoff career better and then struggled later, it wouldn't be as noticeable. An example of this is Jon Lester. We all remember how great he was in 2007 and 2013. Yet in his past three playoff starts he has a 5.48 ERA but that goes largely unnoticed.
Very few players are dominant in the playoffs throughout their entire career. One strong postseason can change the entire narrative. Randy Johnson and Jon Lester are examples of this. Most players have mixed results in their postseason career. Compared to his career totals 63.1 innings in the playoffs is nothing. It hasn't been good for Price so far but if his ratio stats regress to his regular season norms he will be just fine going forward.