When a team finds their guy, it’s usually pretty easy to spot. You can see it when a team chooses one player, perhaps multiple times, over comparable alternatives. In the winter following the 2005 season, it looked pretty clear that Josh Beckett was the Red Sox’ guy. They traded Hanley Ramirez and Anibal Sanchez, their Nos. 1 and 5 preseason prospects, for a pitcher who, through the first four years of his career, had spent 222 days on the disabled list. Teams don’t do that for ordinary players. The Sox clearly saw something in Beckett that they couldn’t find in another pitcher obtainable for the price of Ramirez and Sanchez — which probably would have been plenty.
That trade appeared to backfire on the Red Sox from the start. Beckett had plenty of problems in his transition to the AL, the long ball not least among them. His strikeout rate dipped, his walk rate rose, and, despite a career-low .270 BABIP he still allowed more hits per nine than he had since 2003. All the while, 1,500 miles to the south, Ramirez stepped into the Marlins starting lineup and immediately started fulfilling his potential. While his defense was shaky he still produced a .364 wOBA and 4.1 WAR, good enough to earn him NL Rookie of the Year honors. With Boston missing the playoffs for the first time since 2002, it was easy to second guess the trade. But Boston remained confident in Beckett’s ability to rebound.
They were so confident of Beckett’s abilities, in fact, that during his beleaguered 2006 campaign they signed him to a three-year, $30 million extension with a $12 million club option for 2010. The announcement came at an odd time in that it happened during a postgame press conference with manager Terry Francona, but it also came at an opportune time in that Beckett had just completed eight shutout innings against the Royals. Prior to that he had a 5.12 ERA and 5.57 FIP — which means, of course, that the Sox signed him when he was at his lowest. Even after that start against KC he didn’t fare well, a 5.36 ERA and 4.41 FIP the rest of the way.
In 2007, of course, the league finally realized the full potential of Josh Beckett. The National League had its fits with him from 2002 through 2005, but never had they experienced a full 30 starts of Beckett dominance. That’s what he unleashed on the American League in 2007. In those 30 starts he struck out 8.7 per nine while walking just 1.8. He also halved his home run rate, which was probably the single biggest difference between his first two seasons in Boston. The result was a 3.27 ERA and 3.08 FIP through 200.2 innings, good enough for second in the AL Cy Young voting. Much to Boston fans’ collective delight, he then led the team to its second World Series in four years with 30 brilliant innings.
While Beckett hasn’t repeated his 2007 greatness, he has still been Boston’s ace ever since. Some bad luck on balls in play, plus some time off in September due to injury, hurt his 2008 a bit; his 3.24 FIP and xFIP looked a lot better than his 4.03 ERA. In 2009 he reached a career high 212.1 innings, though his strikeout walk, and home run rates all trended in the wrong direction, though it wasn’t an overly significant change.
Still, it didn’t seem like the Red Sox were very concerned. They had so much faith in Beckett that they signed him to a four-year, $68 million extension in early April. The contract calls for a $15.75 million salary from 2011 through 2014, which is half a million more each year than John Lackey will earn in that span. It might seem, then, like Beckett has some type of contract aversion. He tripped and stumbled after signing his first long-term deal with the Red Sox and pulled a similar act the second time. But the relapse was quite a bit worse. In his first eight starts Beckett pitched just 45.2 innings and allowed a 7.29 ERA, which included uncharacteristically high hit and walk rates. His FIP, 4.31, looked a bit better, but it was clear when watching him that a lack of command played a large role in his high hit and walk rates. After he allowed five runs in 4.2 innings against the Yankees on May 18, he hit the DL with back issues, not to return for two months.
Sox fans might have winced upon Beckett’s return. He did put together a few good starts right after the comeback, just five runs during his 20.2 innings against the Mariners, Angels, and Indians. But those are three below-average offenses. In his next two starts, against New York and Texas, he allowed 13 runs in 9.2 IP, and then let up six against the Angels in 6.1 IP. It looked like another downhill slide for Beckett. Again, as was the case after the first time the Red Sox signed him to a long-term deal, it was easy to second guess this move.
Lately, Beckett has turned things around a bit. He’s not his dominant self from a few years ago, but that can’t really be expected at this point in the season. But even without top-notch stuff he’s still managed to strike out 28 in his last 25.2 innings, walking just nine in that span. Five of those walks came in yesterday’s six-inning, three-run performance against Oakland. His hit and walk rates, plus his BABIP, are all still above his career averages, signaling a continued lack of command. But he certainly looks better on the mound than he did earlier in the season. It’s an encouraging sign for 2011.
Josh Beckett is always going to spend some time on the shelf. He has, in fact, spent time on the DL, 115 days, in every season with the Sox except 2006 and 2009. But the Sox have done a good job of limiting that time, and have for the most part kept Beckett a healthy and effective pitcher. He hit a road block in 2010, but that’s one that can be overcome with a winter’s rest. Given the way he bounced back last time he experienced a poor season, I expect that 2011 will be yet another quality one for Beckett and the Sox.