How the Tigers came to need David Price

Dave Dombrowski’s deal for David Price is getting good reviews. As a Tigers fan, I have mixed feelings. I think Price boosts our October chances for this year and next, compared to what they were the day before. But since the trade amounts to going “all-in” for those two years, I can’t help reflecting on how we got to this point — namely, these four Dombrowski decisions:


  1. Trading Doug Fister for peanuts — widely seen as a money-saver, although Fister makes just over $7 million this year, after averaging 4.7 WAR per 33 starts in two-plus years with Detroit.
  2. Moving Drew Smyly from the bullpen to fill Fister’s spot. As a reliever last year, Smyly’s 2.6 WAR tied for #1 among non-closers, and his 76 IP ranked 14th among pure relievers. He was their one effective lefty last year and their only long reliever, and there was no proven replacement on hand. (No “Coke and a smile” for me, thanks.)
  3. Letting last year’s closer, Joaquin Benoit, walk to San Diego for a guaranteed $15 million over 2 years. Benoit’s 2.8 WAR ranked 6th among relievers last year, as does his 7.2 WAR for 2010-13. Benoit is 36 years old, but then …
  4. Signing Joe Nathan, age 39, for $20 million guaranteed over 2 years.

I thought Dombrowski hit a home run by swapping Prince Fielder for Ian Kinsler, but I didn’t like the sum of those other moves. Still, no one could have predicted this year’s utter failure by just about the entire Tigers bullpen. Nathan’s had a great career, and he was even better than Benoit last year. This year’s great results for Fister and Benoit were no sure thing. Smyly had promise as a starter, where a good performance would be even more valuable, and the lefty reliever Ian Krol who came in the Fister deal looked like he could be good.

But again, since all these moves were focused on a World Series goal, I get a bit hung up on these postseason stats:

Joaquin Benoit 20 Ind. Games 1 0 2.82 3 22.1 17 7 3 5 27 0.99 3 1 0.8 TBR,DET
Joe Nathan 9 Ind. Games 0 2 9.00 1 9.0 14 9 2 8 11 2.44 1 0 -1.0 SFG,MIN,TEX


Doug Fister 8 Ind. Games 3 2 2.98 7 0 48.1 50 16 2 13 37 1.30 1 0 1.3 DET
David Price 9 Ind. Games 1 4 5.06 4 1 32.0 35 18 6 7 30 1.31 7 2 -0.2 TBR


Few reviews that I’ve seen mentioned that Price has lost all four of his postseason starts, with a 5.81 ERA. (The win came in relief, in his debut year.) It’s a small sample, but that rarely stops the pundits from taking notice. One NL executive quoted by Jayson Stark, rating the expected playoff rotations of Oakland and Detroit, noted Justin Verlander’s rough year, but concluded, “I’ll still take the Tigers. He’s got history in October, and Samardzija really doesn’t yet. So I’m going to take the experience.”

Well, fine. But David Price has never really made a good postseason start. His best was 6.2 IP, 3 ER — a game he led 1-0 into the 7th, before yielding a 2-run homer to Mike Napoli. Last year, the Red Sox hammered him for 7 runs and 6 extra-base hits. He’s served 5 HRs in the four starts.

It’s not fair to judge Nathan or Price on such small samples. At the same time, I can’t help thinking that Benoit’s one high-profile failure last fall played a role in the decision to let him go.

Meanwhile, in dumping Fister, Dombrowski parted with one of Detroit’s October heroes. The worst of Fister’s seven postseason starts was 3 runs in 6 innings, and the seven totaled a 2.06 RA/9 in 43.2 IP, and six of the team’s 17 postseason wins in three years. (His one bad game was an emergency long-relief stint that began well and got away late.) Those six team-won starts are tied for #1 with Verlander and Chris Carpenter since 2011. Smyly also did solid postseason work, with a 2.57 ERA in 7 IP while stranding 7 of 8 inherited runners.

Dombrowski’s choices on Fister and Benoit started a chain reaction. The repercussions include acquiring Joakim Soria in exchange for last year’s 1st-round draft pick and their 2012 2nd-rounder (both off to strong pro starts), as well as sending CF Austin Jackson, a steady 4-WAR player in 2010-13 who’s having his worst year to date, along with Smyly and a young infield prospect to land Price. One reason for wanting Price is that every extra inning he provides, compared to Smyly’s starts, is one less nail-biting frame for the shaky bullpen — but that problem essentially began with getting rid of Fister and Benoit.

Detroit probably has the outfield depth to cover losing Jackson, and there don’t seem to be big stretch-run obstacles to another division title. The question is whether the current roster is better fixed to win it all than last year’s bunch. I was never convinced that last year’s ALCS loss reflected any true shortcoming; Detroit out-hit Boston by .254/.659 to .202/.609. Sometimes you get away with a bad pitch in a big spot, and sometimes the other guys turn them into game-changing grand slams. I would as soon have gone to war again with Fister, Benoit and Smyly as with Price, Nathan and Soria.

For me, the trades for Price and Soria come down to Dave Dombrowski trying to fix his own mistakes. And that is worth kudos, because while all GMs make mistakes, some barricade themselves behind those moves. But let’s keep Dombrowski’s “coup” in perspective. If he had held the status quo last winter with Fister, Benoit and Smyly, the Tigers probably would have a bigger division lead right now, and Dombrowski could have spent just a few trade chips for bullpen depth. And the pundits would be praising his patience.


One more point before I go. We tend to overrate players around the trade deadline — partly from grading them against who’s available (as happens with free agency), partly because we prize something we need and lack more than what we have already, and partly just because we like to see things happen.

The buzz for a Price trade has been building ever since the winter. He’s pitched extremely well over the last two months. His 2012 AL Cy Young Award makes a nice story, as he joins forces with the 2011 and ’13 winners. David Price is a very good pitcher — but our expectations should not be based on just the best of what he’s done.

  • Right now, he’s a horse, leading the majors with 171 innings. But for 2012-13 combined, he ranked 25th in total innings, averaging 199. Overall, he’s 7th in IP since 2012.
  • Right now, he leads the majors with 189 strikeouts, and is 7th in K/9. But for 2012-13, he ranked 24th in total strikeouts, 28th in K/9. Overall since 2012, he’s 9th in Ks, 15th in K/9 (400+ IP).
  • With all these strikeouts, Price’s ERA is 3.11 this year, due in part to an AL-high 20 HRs. His 2.93 FIP ranks 17th among this year’s qualifiers, and his 121 ERA+ ranks 30th. Since 2012, he ranks from 6th to 9th in ERA, ERA+, FIP and WAR.

Price is very good, and I’m glad about the trade. But let’s not make him out the equal of Clayton Kershaw, King Felix or Chris Sale. Let’s not put him on a pedestal above Doug Fister, who ranks 16th to 20th in WAR, ERA+ and FIP since 2012. And let’s not predict postseason greatness until he shows us goodness.


How the Tigers came to need David Price — 14 Comments

  1. Excellent points all. I was thinking along the same lines when I heard about the Price deal, but I haven’t seen this line of thinking in any more mainstream baseball writing. I hope for the Tigers sake that they win it all this year, because they have the feel of a team that’s going to get old all of a sudden.

    • Shouldn’t get too old.
      Their pitching is league average – aged.

      Hitters are on the old spectrum.
      In the AL, only Boston and New York are older.

      But moving forward, JD Martinez (26) will replace Torii Hunter (38).
      And a 22 year old (Suarez) is getting a shot at short.

  2. I had a long comment typed out and then hit the back button on this page instead of another one I had open like I intended to.

    In short I can understand steps 2 thru 4. Step 1, not so much.

    Maybe Ray or even Krol will eventually blossom. Fister didn’t really come around until he was a few years older than either of them. And I understand that as Tiger fans we should consider ourselves fortunate that we do have an owner willing to spend money and that a few million dollars is in reality quite a lot.

    But it still doesn’t seem like enough of a return for a proven major league talent especially when you consider that a) there was no great urgency to move him and b) that he was the type of player that virtually every team was in the market for.

    That said, I’m happy that Price is on board. His lack of post-season success doesn’t really bother me. I think the price we paid for him was more than reasonable. Also I remain optimistic that Verlander can return- if not to the Verlander of 11 & 12 then at least to the Verlander of the rest of his career. I’m not even that worried about not having a decent left-handed reliever since I think they are generally a way overvalued commodity anyways.

    The Tigers have had a decade long run of being in contention and have an excellent window of opportunity in the next couple of years.

    A lot of fans have had to settle for a whole lot less.

  3. What’s strange/interesting about Price is that he’s vastly improved his SO/K rate the past two years. But his results have been worse.

    In 2012 he had 6.9 WAR with a 3.37 SO/K ratio.
    In 2013, it was 2.8 WAR with a 5.59 ratio.
    And in 2014, he’s on pace for 3.8 WAR with an eye-popping 8.22 ratio.

    Anyway, I guess that’s the question: Who is David Price? Is he the 6.9 WAR pitcher from 2012? Or is he the 3-4 WAR pitcher from the past two years? Obviously time will tell but I thin you have to put a lot more weight on what he’s done the past two years than what he did in 2012.

    As for postseason, I refer you to CC Sabathia and Justin Verlander who also pitched poorly in the post season, until all of a sudden they didn’t.

    • The advantage he might gain from more strikeouts and fewer walks is almost perfectly offset by his league-leading taters allowed total of 20. Price’s FIP has been virtually unchanged the last three years. Also, if you’re looking at WAR, in his 2012 season he only allowed 3 unearned runs but this year he’s already surrendered 9.

      I’m not a big fan of FIP WAR, but if you look at it for Price his career looks really smooth compared to the ups and downs he’s had with rWAR:

      2010 – 3.9 fWAR
      2011 – 4.3
      2012 – 4.7
      2013 – 4.3
      2014 – 3.9

      So it’s probably the vagaries of BAbip and LOB/sequencing that has caused Price’s rWAR to jump around. FWIW, I am NOT suggesting we start using fWAR.

    • As someone with fond memories of 2012, Verlander is also an example of someone who pitched well in the post season, until all of a sudden they didn’t. See also Cliff Lee, 2010.

  4. Pretty much my sentiments also John.

    To be honest I’m more excited about the fact that Nathan seems to have pulled it together than that they’ve gotten Price. There is still no Smyly or Benoit in the bullpen. If the proper fire can be lit under Coke, which may have to be self-ignited, I hold out hope that he can repeat what he did against the Yankees a couple years back.

    Moreover, Ausmus is faced with some tough decisions at playoff time with the rotation, like whether to put Porcello ahead of Verlander and Sanchez. And he needs to bat Kinsler leadoff; I don’t know what the heck he’s doing on that.

    It’s really hard to know where this is going to end up, especially with a manager who’s getting on the job training.

  5. The Scherzer/Price/Verlander beast gets tested at Yankee Stadium.

    But the “other two’ guys started the week like this:

    8 IP
    5 H
    2 R

    7 IP
    2 H
    0 R

    • And this is my problem with the trade. You mean to tell me Rick Porcello isn’t worthy of being a post season #4 starter? You mean to tell me in a short series you may not even pitch Anibal Sanchez on purpose? In order to achieve this situation of marginal pitching improvement you gave up what?

      Teams with 4 proven starters rolling along shouldn’t trade away bats. Now of course one of them could go down at any point and they look like geniuses but to me the success/failure of this trade mostly depends on the health of Scherzer, Verlander, and Sanchez. If they stay healthy through the post season, this is a bad trade.

  6. I think Dombrowski didn’t want to have 5 righty starters once Porcello matured, even if they were the best staff in the league. So he dealt Fister, as it’s hard to justify paying big $$ to a soft tosser even if his stats are good, how long will they last? Evidently longer than the Tigers thought, as Fister has been impressive pitching for the Nats. The Tigers scouting philosophy is that pitchers need to throw at least 95 mph, basically. Porcello doesn’t really do that, but he’s cheap, and the idea was that Iglesias would vacuum up all of his sinker-induced grounders, though when Iglesias’s shins gave out over the winter, Dombrowski was in scramble mode. Luckily, he can make a trade with just about anything, even in the Tigers’ weak farm system.

    It’s true that you don’t really need a good lefty reliever, unless you have to face someone like David Ortiz. I guess there just aren’t many good ones around, or the Tigers would have one. Nathan always pitched against the Tigers well, so it may have made sense to sign him so we didn’t have to face him anymore.

    The only thing that puzzles me is why trade Fister for Krol and Robbie Ray if the goal is to win now. I guess they thought Krol would be reliable (he’s not yet), but Robbie Ray was supposedly the key to the deal and he’d not ready yet. I think they should have looked for more seasoned relief pitching in dealing Fister, but perhaps there wasn’t any available to get who would be better than Krol.

    • If Detroit brass judged Fister on velocity and not results — if they had any doubt about his expected performance — then shame on them. Three years of success in both the regular season and postseason ought to be persuasive.

      No matter how you characterize his “stuff,” Fister’s K rate for 2011-13 combined was essentially average for an AL starter (6.8 K/9). When you add excellent walk and HR rates, that is absolutely a repeatable path to success.

  7. The other aspect to this whole thing is of course, the Rays. I mean, they are now *notorious* for end-of-season surges, fantastic ones even, they were only 5.5 out of the second WC spot, and were very hot. And yet they still traded the guy away. Completely unexpected; I don’t get it. Is Dombrowski really that much of a sweet talker?

    As for needing a lefty reliever, when you’re in the same division as the Indians, you pretty much gotta have one, given how stacked with lefty hitters they typically are.

    • As much as I wanted to see the Rays keep pushing, I think Andrew Friedman took a sober view of the probabilities. Baltimore and Toronto had both gotten hot again. Through July 30, Tampa trailed the O’s by 8 games in the division, trailed the Jays by 5.5 for the second wild card — and also trailed Seattle, New York, KC and Cleveland.

    • 2014 IP / WAR:

      58.3 Smyly
      59.0 Price

      IP / WAR, through age 25:

      46.7 Smyly (current)
      64.6 Price

      The Tigers get more innings out of the same starter, avoiding their bullpen. Win for them.

      But I don’t think this trade signifies a punt by the Rays.
      They got an equal value pitcher, younger and cheaper.
      Whether or not St Pete thinks they can catch everybody, obviously they like Smyly.

      And they have Franklin, a potential starter at short or 2nd.
      They’ll pick up Zobrist’s option. At which point Franklin play 2nd and BZ goes back to super-utility mode.
      Or they trade Escobar after a down year and get young at SS.

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