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Beckett Primed for Improvement

Josh Beckett was essentially the same pitcher in 2008 that he was in 2007.

His walks, strikeouts, and homers were essentially exactly the same:

Beyond that, the percentage of balls and strikes he threw, as well as the percentage of swinging strikes he induced and pitches that were put in play were exactly the same:

And yet, Beckett’s ERA was 4.03 in 2008 and 3.27 in 2007. What gives?

Well, the first thing we can point to is that Beckett’s BABIP was .327 in 2008. Interestingly, it was above-average in 2007 as well, at .316. However, there’s no reason to think that this is anything except two straight seasons of bad luck – the Red Sox had fantastic defenses during both of these seasons, and Beckett’s career BABIP is .301. There’s no reason to think that Beckett will post a higher-than-usual BABIP in 2009. Still, this doesn’t explain Beckett’s higher ERA in 08 than 07.

Beckett stranded slightly less in 08 (71.3%) than he did in 07 (75.2%), but this wasn’t a huge change. He did allow a higher opponent’s OPS with runners in scoring position in 08 than 07 – in 08 it was .639, while in 07 it was .550.

In fact, with RISP in 2008, Beckett walked hitters at twice the rate that he did in 07. Beckett also allowed more extra base hits with runners in scoring position in 08 than he did in 07. However, he still struck batters out at the same rate in every situation in both years.

Beckett’s biggest problem in 2008 (as well as 2007, although to a lesser extent) was his home ballpark. Beckett posted a 5.65 ERA at home in 2008, compared to a 2.85 ERA on the road. In 2007, his home ERA was 4.17, and his road ERA was 2.18. Indeed, Fenway is a hitter’s park, and Beckett’s struggles at home shouldn’t be ignored by fantasy owners. However, Beckett is still such a good pitcher that it’s unlikely that his ERA will be over 5 at home once again. That said, Beckett has shown to be a much better fantasy bet in games outside of Fenway Park.

In short, Josh Beckett’s fundamental ability to pitch seems not to have changed, at all, from 2007 to 2008. He had approximately the same amount of walks and same amount of strikeouts. He threw the same percentage of balls and induced the same percentage of swinging strikes. He threw his fastball at the same speed, and didn’t alter his repertoire noticeably.

Rather, the main changes were in areas that were out of Beckett’s control. His BABIP was higher in 08; his LOB% was lower in 08; he allowed a great proportion of his walks and extra-base hits in situations when runners were in scoring position. There’s no reason to think that these things are anything but random variation, given that ALL of Beckett’s underlying fundamentals didn’t change.

What does this mean for 2009? Well, assuming Beckett once again pitches as he did in 2007 and 2008, his ERA is very likely to decrease. The Red Sox will once again have an excellent defense, and it’s likely that Beckett’s BABIP will regress, after having been well-above-average during both 2007 and 2008. Beckett’s FIP during the last two years was 3.08 and 3.24, respectively; there’s no reason to think that Beckett cannot post an ERA under 3.50 – and perhaps even under 3.30 – in 2009.

Beckett may struggle in Fenway, and you might consider benching him against tougher opponents at home. However, his home ERA probably won’t be over 5 again, and he’s shown the ability to absolutely dominate outside of Fenway. His low ERA, coupled with over eight strikeouts per nine innings, less than two walks per nine, as well as one of the league’s best offenses and defenses, makes Josh Beckett a true fantasy ace.