- FanGraphs Baseball - http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs -

Josh Beckett’s Missing Fastball Is the Real Story

Josh Beckett laid an egg last night, giving up seven runs while facing only 16 batters last night, and he got booed so loudly that the word lustily doesn’t even seem to do it justice. The boos were almost certainly louder than normal due to the recent revelation that Josh Beckett went golfing after he was scratched from his last start due to a strained lat muscle. The story has become that Beckett doesn’t care, and that his struggles are simply due to an apathetic attitude that was also the cause of last year’s late season collapse.

Maybe the story should be that Josh Beckett just isn’t healthy enough to perform up to his usual standards. I know, I know, that’s not nearly as fun as assassinating someone’s character, but it’s the conclusion that best lines up with the evidence.

Last year, Josh Beckett’s fastball averaged 93.0 MPH, and he topped out at 94-95 with regularity. This year, Beckett’s fastball is averaging just 91.5 MPH, and the fastest pitch he threw last night was 92.9 MPH. The difference is easy to see in graph form.

It’s not just his fastball, either. His curveball is off over 2 MPH from last year, so this isn’t just a case of a missing top-end velocity, but instead, Beckett’s just not throwing anything as hard as he has in the past. Missing velocity isn’t always a sign of a health problem, but in Beckett’s case, we don’t have to speculate about whether there’s something physically wrong – the Red Sox already confirmed that there is when they skipped his last start.

So, we have a guy whose velocity is down across the board, who missed a start nine days ago with an acknowledged muscle strain, and at the same time is posting the lowest strikeout rate and highest home run rate of his career. The logical conclusion is that the physical condition – whether it is actually as minimal as a strain or something more serious that hasn’t yet been discovered – is likely causing the diminished velocity, which in turn is playing a significant role in Beckett’s inability to get hitters out.

Tim Lincecum is battling similar problems over in San Francisco right now, struggling to live up to expectations while adjusting to life with a 90 MPH heater. Justin Masterson‘s fastball has gone missing in Cleveland, and he’s been nothing short of a wreck for the Indians since his opening day masterpiece against the Blue Jays. In Chicago, John Danks showed up for camp with a shiny new five year contract but without his best fastball, and he’s been awful over the first five weeks of the season.

None of those guys have yet been diagnosed with any kind of physical ailment that might explain their early season struggles, and none of these guys are being pilloried in the media.

The response to Beckett’s struggles – best exemplified in this piece by Gordon Edes – is far more about his personality than his performance. Beckett doesn’t come off particularly well in this recent golfing thing, and he has a history of being prickly to the media. It’s not overly surprising that they’ve turned the golf story into a firestorm and are openly calling for Beckett to be released.

But, guys with lousy attitudes can struggle for reasons other than their lousy attitudes, and connecting the dots between poor media relations skills and on field struggles requires a leap of faith that we just shouldn’t be willing to make. We saw nearly this exact same scenario play out a year ago, when John Lackey was crucified for his on field struggles and off field attitude, only to have it revealed later that he needed Tommy John surgery and had been pitching with a bum elbow.

Hopefully, Beckett doesn’t have that kind of serious injury, but given his velocity loss, his lousy performance, and the fact that he’s already had to miss one start, it certainly seems like a distinct possibility. And Beckett pitching through an injury would explain his troubles a lot more than some personality defect would. Beckett’s been a prickly guy for his entire career and it has never stopped him from getting hitters out before.

Maybe Beckett really is apathetic, doesn’t care that he’s struggling, and is just counting the days until the season is over. Or maybe he’s trying to pitch through an injury and figure out how to pitch without the ability to throw his fastball by hitters anymore. One of those two theories can be supported by the evidence and isn’t all that uncommon in the world of pitchers. The other requires us to judge the motives of another human being despite having no real knowledge of his inner thoughts.

Call me crazy, but maybe we should go with the one that doesn’t require us to believe we know what’s going on in Josh Beckett’s head. Maybe the Boston media should be more concerned with what’s going on in Beckett’s arm instead.