After a middling first start, the media was ready to jump on Josh Beckett. The results weren’t bad, exactly, but he didn’t quite look like the pre-2010 Beckett. In their podcast the following day, ESPN’s David Schoenfield, Keith Law, and Eric Karabell talked about Beckett’s lack of conditioning. Red Sox blog Fire Brand of the AL mentioned it, too. Yet there were many pitchers who performed poorly in their first outings who didn’t get called out for conditioning issues. Perhaps this was an ex-post explanation for the bad outing following a poor 2010 season. But, poor conditioning or not, he came back to completely shut down the Yankees last night. I doing so, he looked a lot like the Beckett of old.
Three aspects of Beckett’s start last night stood out. The first was the return of his velocity. Last Tuesday against the Indians it wasn’t bad, really. He topped out at just over 93 mph and averaged over 92. That’s going to get it done for most pitchers, but just isn’t where Beckett sat during his heyday, which was around 94 mph. Even last year he averaged 93.6 mph on the fastball. Last night he didn’t quite reach that level, but he did average 93.5 mph. That allowed him to work up in the zone, something the Yankees’ hitters did not handle well. It also helped that his two-seamer displayed similar velocity and that his cutter was a tick below. He generated plenty of swings and misses on those pitches.
Beckett’s control and command also returned last night, which was another reason he was able to last eight innings on 103 pitches, rather than the five he lasted on 106 pitches last Tuesday. In terms of pure strike-throwing, he threw just a few extra in the zone last night compared to Tuesday, and the extra swinging strikes really might have been the entire difference in strike count. The biggest difference, really, was in his ability to get his curveball over. He did that just half the time against the Indians, but against the Yankees he threw it for a strike more than 70 percent of the time.
The curveball might have been the biggest factor in Beckett’s dominant game. After throwing it just 16 times in his first start, Beckett turned to his favorite weapon two dozen times last night. Sometimes it served as a first-pitch strike. Sometimes, as in the case of Brett Gardner, it buckled knees for a called strike three. Plenty of times the Yankees could do nothing but foul it off. That, really, was the best result, since it gave the hitter another chance. The linear weights score on the pitch was -2.0043, a number you won’t see that often. It set up, it froze, it frustrated — essentially, it did everything for Beckett last night. Just like old times.
When pundits piled on the World Series predictions for the Red Sox, the return of Josh Beckett had to play a large factor. After one start things didn’t look that great, as Beckett didn’t have his fastball or his curveball working optimally. Yet, as was the case with many starters, the first time around might have been a blip. Last night he looked like the Beckett of old. That will go a long way in helping the Red Sox fulfill the heavy expectations placed on them this season.
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