Crasnick: Staying Put, But Not Standing Pat

Image credit: Clayton Kershaw (left) and David Price matched up in Game 5 of the 2018 World Series. Both veteran lefthanders could have opted out of their contracts to become free agents, but they both decided to stay put and continue evolving as 30-something pitchers on successful teams.

Not every pitcher has the genetics or good fortune to emulate Justin Verlander, a physical marvel with the ability to fling 95 mph fastballs and generate swings and misses seemingly at will at age 35. Longevity in the profession is often a product of recognizing limitations, adjusting and getting the job done with middling velocity as time passes. Just ask Felix Hernandez how challenging that process can be.

Somewhere along the way, economic considerations factor into the equation. At one stage or another, even pitchers with Hall of Fame-caliber portfolios have to put their egos and curiosity aside and stay put for a measly $30 million a year.

Thanks to Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, the 2018 free agent crop will go down as one of the most discussed, debated and newsworthy in recent memory. There’s some capable lefthanded pitchers, too, with Patrick CorbinDallas KeuchelJ.A. Happ and Gio Gonzalez among the available options.

The class is four Cy Young Awards and 12 All-Star Game appearances short of sensational only because Clayton Kershaw and David Price assessed the landscape and decided the view wasn’t any more scenic from the opposite dugout.

On Halloween morning, Price made the speculation official when he announced that he would not opt out of the four years and $127 million left on his $217 million contract with the Red Sox. “I’m opting in,” Price told fans at Fenway Park before boarding a duck boat for the team’s World Series victory parade. “I’m not going anywhere.”

Two days later, Kershaw walked the same path. Faced with the choice of staying put or ditching the two years and $65 million left on his deal, he opted for a compromise and will remain in Los Angeles for three years and $93 million (or $105 million, if he stays healthy and
makes a predetermined number of starts). The reconfigured deal assures Kershaw of a longer tenure in Dodger Blue than Sandy Koufax, the franchise icon to whom he is so often compared.

Fans habitually roll their eyes when players talk about the personal considerations involved in decisions of this magnitude, but it’s about more than garden-variety cash-grabbing. Kershaw and his wife, Ellen, have found a comfort zone raising their two young children in Southern California. And there’s something to be said for dad knowing he’ll arrive at Camelback Ranch each spring as part of a division title contender.

Plan B—a return home to Dallas—had to look less appealing to Kershaw with the Rangers fresh off a lastplace finish and contemplating a rebuild in a division headed by the Astros, the up-and-coming Athletics and an Angels team led by Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani.

Kershaw, who will be 31 next season, shared a premonition of an “I told you so” during an early November conference call. His 2.73 ERA, 1.04 WHIP and 8.6 strikeouts per nine innings this season were substandard—at least, by his standards—and he’s sensitive to the perception that his best days are behind him.

“There’s been a lot of people saying I’m in decline or not going to be as good as I once was,” Kershaw said. “I’m looking forward to proving a lot of people wrong with that.”

While Kershaw put the “October bust” nonsense to bed a while ago, Price spent his first two years with the Red Sox saddled with the reputation as a pitcher who couldn’t handle the
incessant scrutiny of Boston. He didn’t help himself by picking an unnecessary fight with broadcaster Dennis Eckersley and repeatedly clashing with the local media in 2017. Worse yet, Price missed the first two months of the season with a strained elbow and logged a mere 72.2 innings.

The narrative continued to hurtle in the wrong direction in May 2018 when Price was diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome in his left wrist, and his affinity for Fortnite became a subject of talk radio discourse. But he persevered and crafted a nice comeback season. He even weathered a 102.6 mph line drive off the wrist from the Marlins’ Austin Dean in late August.

After a rugged 1.2-inning performance in a 6-2 loss to the Yankees in the American League Division Series, Price found his footing and embraced his inner hero. During the World Series, barely a day passed when he wasn’t starting, warming up in the bullpen or lobbying to do something to test the limits of his stamina. He stood tall, embraced the pressure and will no longer have to deal with those nagging questions about his previous October shortcomings.

Both veteran lefties know what it means to tinker with the recipe for success. Kershaw threw his fastball barely 40 percent of the time in 2018 and has become much more reliant on his slider in recent years. The next step in his evolution will be adding a changeup, a pitch that’s thus far proven elusive to him. But anyone who’s watched Kershaw in his bullpen sessions or in simulated games—barking out expletives from behind his glove when he misses his spot by an inch or two—can attest to the time and effort he’ll invest in making it happen.

Price, at 33, has similarly evolved since his 2008 major league debut with the Rays as a No. 1 overall pick out of Vanderbilt. He ditched his slider years ago and now throws a healthy mix of
fastballs, cutters and changeups. Along the way, Price has bounced back routinely from injury scares thanks to what Dr. James Andrews once called a “very unique” left elbow.

That elbow leads to a left hand that will be sporting a World Series ring come April. David Price has a title in his portfolio and all the motivation he needs for a repeat. Roughly 3,000 miles away, Clayton Kershaw is driven by the desire to go the distance after two straight World Series appearances that ended in disappointment.

They’re brothers-in-arms, comfortable with their choices and ready to pursue the chase anew. And their teams are richer for their presence.

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