This story was first published on Sportsnet.
TORONTO — Toronto Blue Jays manager John Gibbons was sitting at a podium Wednesday afternoon, bright red ALDS backdrop hanging behind him, describing David Price as one of the great characters in the game. “I didn’t realize he was the fun-loving, outgoing guy that he is,” Gibbons said.
And then, as if scripted, Price entered the room to take his manager’s place on the pedestal, carrying a large print out of his likeness in emoji form, along with that of his French bulldog, Astro, proudly displaying it for all to see propped between his size-13.5 custom Jordans.
“The shoes are PE— I’m pretty sure that stands for Players’ Edition,” Price said. “Those are my playoff cleats from Michael. So — thanks, Mike.”
It’s all a little surreal. David freaking Price, one of the best pitchers in the American League — if not all of baseball — for the past six seasons will start a playoff game for the Toronto freaking Blue Jays Thursday night, and if someone had suggested that to you this April, or even this July, you might have lost your freaking mind. And yet, here we are.
“Post-season baseball is definitely different but you have to go out there and treat it the same,” Price said. “I know where my preparation is. I know where my work is. I just want to go out there and be the best.”
He has undoubtedly been in that discussion throughout his career, and especially during his brief time in Toronto where he’s posted a 2.30 ERA in 11 starts with an average of 10.5 strikeouts per nine innings and if not for a poor-by-his-standards outing against the Tampa Bay Rays in his final start of the regular season — he allowed four earned runs over five innings against his former team which always seems to play him tough — his ERA would be below 2.00.
Getting to pitch Price in the biggest baseball game this city has seen in quite some time is a hell of a luxury for Gibbons, who appeared on the cover of this week’s Sports Illustrated, flanked by Price and other best-at-what-they-do Blue Jays, grinning widely with his arms stretched out wide, looking dead into the camera as if to say, “Can you believe I get to manage these guys?”
“He’s got the great arm. He’s got an overpowering arm. Not everybody has that. But he’s still a pitcher. For a guy who throws so hard, he still locates. That’s really what separates the elite guys from the average guys. You take guys with great arms — when they can locate the ball, now you’ve got the superstars,” Gibbons said. “And his mentality — he’s as good of a competitor as you’re going to find. The really good ones, when they get in jams, they just take it up notch, you know?”
Price has worked hard to bring that team-above-all mentality to the Blue Jays — who paid a handsome fee to acquire him at the trade deadline — both on the field and off. He bought scooters for a number of his teammates and personalized bathrobes for the entire clubhouse. He’s joined his fellow starters during their afternoon side sessions at stadiums around the American League to provide advice, including young Marcus Stroman who calls Price an idol. He sat out in the bullpen with the Blue Jays relief corps in the second half of the Baltimore double-header that saw the team clinch an AL East championship.
In short, he’s made an impact — far beyond what anyone would expect of a rental ace acquired with two months to go in the season.
“Just don’t change — that’s one of my sayings. Times change, but I don’t. I don’t care what team I’m on, I want to conduct myself in that locker room, in the dugout, and out there on the field the way that I always have,” Price said. “Post-season baseball is definitely different but you have to go out there and treat it the same. So whenever you get caught up in ‘this is the playoffs, this is the post-season,’ you can kind of get overwhelmed with it.
“No matter how good you do on the field, it’s not going to be good enough. You’ve got to go out there with the same mindset and treat it the same as every other game.”
Of course, it won’t be entirely the same. Price has had an unusually lengthy amount of time between his last outing and this one, foregoing his final start of the season once the Blue Jays clinched and going 11 days without pitching in a game. Blue Jays management came to Price after the club secured the AL East title last week and gave him the option of making another regular season start or not. They figured that for Price, whose numbers were right on the cusp of matching Cy Young-favourite Dallas Keuchel’s, it might not be an easy decision. But they were wrong.
“I said, ‘Do you want to go out there? You’re in the battle for the Cy Young but it’d probably be good if you rested up, too’” Gibbons recalled. “And he just said, ‘I don’t worry about individual awards.’ That showed me something. It doesn’t surprise me, but when you hear it from the guy it’s nice.”
Price has spent his extended break doing the things he normally does — throwing bullpen sessions, performing arm exercises, keeping his mind clear. He threw some batting practice to Troy Tulowitzki and Matt Hague to at least simulate the feeling of facing live hitting, but other than that he hasn’t changed a thing.
“If you can get these days off at this point in the season, that’s good,” Price said. “If you can come into the post-season with your body feeling the way I feel right now, that’s a plus.”
It’s a new approach, but maybe Price needed one. He’s been iffy in the post-season to this point in his career, posting a 4.50 ERA in 10 playoff games and still searching for his first win in five starts.
His most recent post-season outing, with the Detroit Tigers in last year’s ALDS against the Baltimore Orioles, was a terrific effort as Price allowed just two runs over eight innings in a one-run loss. But a year prior, while pitching for the Rays in the ALDS, he was rocked by the Boston Red Sox to the tune of nine hits and seven earned runs over seven frames.
Of course, his post-season experience is an extremely small sample of just 40 innings, and there is a confluence of day-to-day and year-to-year factors that will have influenced his results across his five trips to the playoffs, but this is October, where every game, every inning and every pitch is performed beneath a microscope. Not that the ever-relaxed Price cares to notice.
“I’ve got to treat it the same as every other game, just go out there and make pitches and let our defence play defence. Put up some early zeros, let our offence settle in, go out there and get that lead,” Price said. “The dimensions of the mound and 60 feet, six inches doesn’t change. So, it’s still the same thing.”
It’s been interesting to track Price’s tendencies this year, but perhaps not for the reasons you might think. While many pitchers will follow a trend to their approach throughout the course of the season, Price seems to adjust his from start-to-start.
On some days his fastball usage will spike, and on others he’ll lean on his sinker. In some games he’ll throw curveballs with nearly a quarter of his pitches, and in others he’ll utilize his cutter that much. There isn’t much of a clear trend, other than Price’s increased reliance on that cutter since he became a Blue Jay, a tendency that has coincided with some of his best success of the season.
“Nowadays, everybody’s got the stats. They’ll look at, ‘oh, this guy throws this many of this, or this percentage of that, and he throws them at this time or that time,’” Gibbons said. “But with Price, it’s tough to narrow him down because he can go at you so many different ways with so many different weapons and I think that’s his approach, you know?”
The one time Price took on Texas this season he relied primarily on his sinker (he used it 45 per cent of the time) while mixing and matching with his changeup (21 per cent) and cutter (20 per cent). He barely used his curveball (five per cent) and backed off of his four-seamer (eight per cent) significantly. It certainly worked, as he struck out eight over six innings of two-run ball.
Of course, that was then and this is now. Price may take what he learned about Rangers hitters in that game and completely alter his approach to keep them off balance.
“Texas for me has always been a tough team to pitch against,” Price said. “It’s always a tough lineup for a left-handed pitcher to face, but I’ve thrown the ball well against them I think my last three times I’ve faced those guys. So I’ll just continue to carry on that confidence from my past three, and just throw my game.”
At the end of his press conference, Price collected his props, picking up that big grinning emoji, posing for a few pictures and kissing Astro’s little white head.
“Astro, he gets pretty giddy around this time of year,” Price said. “For me, I mean, this is why you play the game. This is why you’re putting in work in November, December. This is why you play.”