The Return of Josh Beckett

If the Boston Red Sox are going to contend for the World Series, much of their success is contingent on Josh Beckett‘s return to form. After succumbing to a back injury last season, Beckett entered 2011 as one of the question marks on a strong Red Sox team. Throughout the month of April, Beckett has churned out some vintage performances. Now that Beckett appears fully healthy, should we expect his strong performances to continue?

It’s tough to rely on only four starts to fully understand whether Beckett has returned to form, but the early returns look promising. Though Beckett actually had some solid peripherals last season, what really hurt his numbers was trouble with the long ball. This season, Beckett has done a fine job limiting home runs over his first four starts. He’s not going to allow home runs on only 5% of his fly balls all season, but the early returns suggest Beckett isn’t going to suffer from such a severe case of homeritis again either.

One of the major reasons Beckett has been effective this season has been the effectiveness of all his pitches. Last season, none of Beckett’s pitches rated positively according to his pitch-type values. Over his first four starts, each of Beckett’s offerings rate positively. Much of Beckett’s early success is due to the return of his curve. In his breakdown of Beckett’s start against the New York Yankees, Joe Pawlikowski highlighted Beckett’s success with the curve. After netting -2.1 runs from it last season, the curve has actually been Beckett’s best pitch this season, rating 3.6 runs above average. Over his career, the curve has been one of Beckett’s best pitches, so his early success with the pitch is promising.

The reason Beckett has been able to bury hitters with his curve most likely has to do with his aggressive approach early in the count. Last season, Beckett’s first-pitch strike percentage dropped to 58.4% (his career average is 61.7%). An early return to his career average has enabled Beckett to get ahead of hitters more often this season, contributing to his return to form.

Beckett’s contact rates have also been strong this season. After posting a career-low SwStr% and a career-high Contact% last season, Beckett has improved in both of those categories this season. His SwStr% has rebounded to his 2007-2009 rates, while his Contact% is the lowest it’s been with the Red Sox. While his Contact% will likely rise as the season continues, his gains in SwStr% are another sign that the Beckett of old has returned.

Yes, it’s only been four starts, and there are some signs that point to regression (his HR/FB rate, BABIP, and LOB%), but Beckett’s early season success is more reminiscent of the 2007-2009 Beckett than the 2010 version. When compared to the rest of his career, 2010 looks like it will be the outlier and not the start of Beckett’s decline. The Red Sox have already experienced their fair share of issues this season, but Beckett’s early season performance is one less thing the Red Sox have to worry about going forward. He may not return to Cy Young form, but as Beckett has already shown this season, 2010 appears to be an aberration.

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Chris is a blogger for He has also contributed to Sports on Earth, the 2013 Hard Ball Times Baseball Annual, ESPN, FanGraphs and RotoGraphs. He tries to be funny on twitter @Chris_Cwik.

24 Responses to “The Return of Josh Beckett”

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  1. Yirmiyahu says:

    The simple explanation for Beckett’s resurgence: it’s an odd-numbered year.

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  2. RC says:

    Sometimes I love Fangraphs, and sometimes we get stuff like this, where you miss the forest for the stats.

    Take a look at some pitchfx data.

    Beckett is a different pitcher now. Better or worse, we’ll see when teams get some more footage of how his pitches break, he’s changed his arm slot because of the back and shoulder issues, and its changing how his pitches move.

    His FB breaks more vertically, but less horizontally. His curve is doing the opposite, more horizontal movement than it used to have, but less vertical. His changeup is moving more horizontally.

    He’s a different pitcher.

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    • jaywrong says:

      yeah, seriously. this statement is totally false. his arm slot and motion are still the same. if we are talking about locations of pitches, you are basically saying every pitcher is different on every pitch. makes no sense whatsoever.

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  3. kid says:

    Also the GB/FB in 2011 (1.67) is at at an all-time high (1.26 career).

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  4. Brandon says:

    I remember checking this last year for a post for SOSH. The quality of a Beckett start almost ALWAYS tracks with the strike percentage he gets with his curveball… when he can command it, he’s an ace. When he can’t, he’s a bit worse than league average.

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    • RC says:

      Isn’t that true of all pitchers though? When they can command their offspeed stuff, they’re great. When they can’t, guys sit on the fastball.

      I think the difference is how often they can do it.

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  5. Jaba says:

    “Last season, Beckett’s first-pitch strike percentage dropped to 58.4% (his career average is 61.7%). An early return to his career average has enabled Beckett to get ahead of hitters more often this season, contributing to his return to form.”

    That’s a difference of 1 first pitch strike for every 30 batters faced. Do we really think that’s significant or just a little variation around his mean?

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    • Eric M. Van says:

      It’s not statistically significant but it’s trending strongly in that direction (p = .09).

      I agree that it’s not a big enough difference to account (be causative for) the improvement. It is, however, probably a real symptom of differences in command, which of course are in part responsible.

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  6. Asher says:

    The use of the word “return” is just a hair over 1/Paragraph. That’s a solid TR theme rate in line with the title of the article, in line with xTR projections this year

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  7. lester bangs says:

    Waiting for the “small sample size” lights to flash.

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    • Eric M. Van says:

      Any sample size can be meaningful if the effect is large enough.

      In fact, by Game Score total, those were the three best consecutive regular season starts of Beckett’s career. And they were not in the least helped by weak opposition lineup or the like.

      The odds of a guy who has been tremendously inconsistent because of health issues having the three best consecutive starts of his career without being healthier than average are pretty darn slim.

      (Besides, I analyzed the even / odd year pattern this winter at SoSH, concluded it was due to conditioning, and predicted a big year both there and, more recently, here (where I was of course predictably mocked for buying into the “best shape of his life” meme)).

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  8. Sen-baldacci says:

    a different pitcher indeed. about 25 lbs. heavier. Look at the guy! he’s letting his old fat man genes run wild a little early.

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  9. pft says:

    The question is will this be the Beckett we see come September/October?
    In 2008 and 2009 he finished the season either injured or performing poorly. That continued into 2010 befor he hurt his back in May.

    Beckett has pitched great for 3 straight starts against the Yankees w/o A-Rod and a game time start of 45 deg, Blue Jays (w/o 2 regulars) with a game time start at 54 deg, and a pretty questionable Angel lineup in a pitchers park.

    I guess I am skeptical, but he has looked really good for these 3 starts, especially the curveball. Lets see how he does with some warmer weather coming up. Next 3 starts are Orioles, Angels and twins, so no test there. After that there is a start in NY in May.

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    • Ari Collins says:

      Not to jump all over you, but if the only test is where it’s warm weather, against a top lineup, with no regulars sitting, in a hitter’s park, well, then that’s pretty much never gonna happen. You could always find a mitigating factor, but you could also (more easily!) say that he’s pitched against the best lineup in baseball in a hitter’s park, then against another good lineup in a hitter’s park, then in warm weather.

      Thing is, I don’t think he’s pitched in easier conditions than the average pitcher (though I’m certainly open to being proven wrong on that), and he’s performing way better than the average pitcher.

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  10. jcashwell says:

    Okay gang….shutdown the SAS software and step away from the laptop. I too have a math degree and can appreciate p-stats and sample size, but I have a recommendation. WATCH THE GAMES!

    Beckett’s stuff, location and overall outings pass the eye test. The pitcher running out thus far in 2011 is healthy and that absolutely equates to Beckett as an ace starting pitcher.

    Beckett healthy and working in the zone with four plus quality pitches is always going to be extremely difficult to square up. He is going to give up HRs when he gets pitches up and I seriously doubt 2011 concludes with a sub 2.0 ERA and sub 1.0 WHIP, but no SP will have that line.

    Watch the games and you will see that Josh Beckett thru 4 games unquestionably passes the eye test. I don’t need to analyze GB/FB ratios, BABIP or FPS% to see that. Lets wait a few more starts before we try to estimate his 2011 full year stat line.

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  11. Eric Cioe says:

    My favorite part about Beckett was in 2007 when people were clamoring for him to win the Cy Young based on his good season and his great postseason and seemingly forgot that he sat out June with a little blister. Pretty easy to have a lot in the tank come October if you sat out a month earlier.

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    • DavidCEisen says:

      Cy Young voting is done before the playoffs start, so I promise no factored that in with their vote.

      Blisters also are very difficult for pitchers.

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    • Jonathan says:

      Except that’s completely false.

      Beckett missed a total of two starts in May after exiting one game early. He actually put up six starts in June (His most of any month in 2007) and averaged five in every other month but April. Additionally, it was a stiff neck, not blisters.

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  12. Jim says:

    It’s a good thing the Cy Young has nothing to do with the postseason, huh.

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    • Eric Cioe says:

      Oh, I know the postseason doesn’t factor into voting. But after the award was announced, there were lots of people saying that their performances in the postseason just showed that the voters got it wrong. My point is that Beckett, even at his best, was too highly-thought of, because he never reached the level of elite innings eater like Haren or CC or Doc or what have you.

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  13. james wilson says:

    Correct, Cashwell, Beckett’s curve is much better and his command of all pitches is far greater, which translates to hitters losing confidence in waiting him out for a fat pitch. When Colon was an ace with Cleveland, against the same team he would pitch a two-hitter in one start and get shellacked in the next (or vica-versa) with the very same stuff, the entire difference being four inches in location.

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