With the MLB trading deadline passing this afternoon without much in the way of “changing the culture” in the clubhouse, which many Boston pundits have been calling for all season, a major faction of Red Sox Nation is left to squint in anguish as their favorite whipping boy makes his scheduled start against the Detroit Tigers at Fenway Park. To say Josh Beckett has had a rough past six months would be quite the understatement. Following the historic September collapse last season, Beckett was crowned the king of the “chicken and beer” crowd, and has since been the go to scapegoat for all the ills that have befallen the club in 2012. There was the completely overblown incident involving a certain injury and a certain golf outing as well as Beckett’s disastrous handling of media criticism which only further fanned the flames.
Then there’s the performance on the field. In Beckett’s last 21 starts, he has compiled 131.1 innings while posting an ERA of 4.72, hardly a number befitting a pitcher anointed “ace” status since his arrival in Boston. At first glance, these numbers show a pitcher on the wrong side of 30 who has seemingly lost all effectiveness. But is Josh Beckett really done as a quality Major League Pitcher?
Leaving all speculation on his status as the “cancer” in the clubhouse, his supposed unwillingness to pitch with emotion, and countless other accusations, the one that has caught my attention was the idea that Josh Beckett may simply be done as an effective pitcher for the Red Sox. The results over his past 21 starts have been downright bad, there is no denying that, but to extrapolate that to the point of being happy to pay half his salary for a few minor leaguers seems silly. The disconnect probably comes from the expectation of Josh Beckett being an Ace. He is certainly not one, and anyone expecting that of him at this point will be disappointed. Non-Ace, however, does not have to mean horrible pitcher unworthy of taking to the mound. At this point, it is fair to assume Beckett will be a fairly good starter.
While it is easy to look at his ERA of 4.72 in his last 21 starts as being indicative of a steep decline, his FIP clocked in at 3.76 in those same innings. FIP is by no means a perfect metric, but considering Beckett’s career ERA/FIP are 3.88/3.67, it isn’t unreasonable to expect them to regress toward each other given a large enough sample. Does that mean we should expect Josh Beckett to pitch closer to 3.76 at this point? This is much more difficult to say.
There is some comfort in seeing he has not lost his control, which can single-handedly bring a cliff-like decline. That comfort is mitigated by his inability to strike people out at his previous high levels. While he has lowered his BB% from 6.8% in 2011 to 6.4% this season, he has also lowered his K% from 22.8% to 17.9% which is a massive decrease and ranks as the lowest in his career. Loss in “stuff” may not be the culprit here though.
There has been a lot of fuss about his decrease in velocity, and while this issue is very real, it does not seem to be such a decrease as to see him be totally useless. While his strikeout numbers have plummeted, his swinging strike rate sits at 9.5%, down from 10.5% last season. This may seem like another classic warning sign and a cause for concern, but in every other season with the Red Sox this number has hovered below 9%. Two subtle changes in batters approach to Beckett may be causing these changes in his strikeout and walk rate. In 2012, hitters have both swung at more Josh Beckett offerings and made more contact than his career rates. The changes aren’t drastic, but may be a plausible explanation.
While wild speculation and demonization play all too well in the Boston market, piling on Josh Beckett as the sole executor of the demise of the “Best Team Evah” seems a bit short-sighted. Is there some truth in the ruckus leaking out of the Red Sox clubhouse? Certainly. Maybe more than we think, maybe less than we think. There has been a lot of over exaggeration in Beckett’s season thus far, not the least of which is his ninja-like ability to also affect Jon Lester telepathically with his “bad attitude”. Looking at more than ERA, wins, and losses tells a different story than the world is over denationalization. But the tale of a tough-guy pitcher declining slightly doesn’t sound so sweet.
While most probably think the team is doomed because he wasn’t moved at the deadline for a bag-of-balls, Beckett should pitch like a decent starter and true talent should land his ERA in the neighborhood of 3.6-4. Is Beckett done? Hardly. He probably isn’t up to matching someone like Justin Verlander pitch for pitch (which is unfortunate as he is set to take on Verlander tonight), but as a good #2 or #3 starter, Beckett should be fine, and Red Sox fans should be pleased Ben Cherington chose not panic and pay him to pitch for the Texas Rangers.