Tuesday, March 22, 2011

For Yankees, The Key to 2011 Might Be Josh Beckett

When Josh Beckett was traded to the Boston Red Sox in 2006, it was assumed he would be an Cy Young candidate and an ace for years to come. He was 25, an absolute hoss, and seemingly the reincarnation of Roger Clemens: a hard-throwing intimidator and strikeout king without fear.

And for the most part, he’s worked out for the BoSox just fine. He has pitched well—maybe not as consistently as Boston wanted—but he did lead the Red Sox to a Series victory in 2007, where he pitched lights out. His 2007 postseason: 4-0 with an ERA around 1.6.

Fast forward to now. Josh Beckett is no longer the ace of the Red Sox staff—Jon Lester is. He’s not the number 2 pitcher either—Clay Buchholz is. In fact, Beckett is the number 4 pitcher in the Red Sox rotation and is being jiggered by Terry Francona to make sure he starts the season against the Indians and not against the Yankees and Rangers.

Whoa…what’s happened to Beckett? Can he not even pitch to the Rangers without Red Sox Nation quaking in their caps? What’s wrong?

Well, checking the Fangraphs.com site, we see that Beckett has only lost only a touch off his mph, so arm strength is not the issue. No, looking further at the numbers, what the trouble seems to be is Beckett’s inability to spot his pitches like he used to. His curveball, once rock-reliable has lost movement and has earned a -2.1 wCB. His fastball, formerly his bread-and-butter pitch has seemingly abandoned the lower half of the zone. Now up in the strike zone, Beckett’s wFB has plummeted and as a result, Beckett is relying more on his two-seamer and cutter to try to get better movement on his pitches.

It hasn’t worked. Contact against his pitches (not down in the zone anymore) is way up from where it used to be. Walks are also up to a career-high for Beckett. Most telling, perhaps is his swStrk (strikes swung on and missed) which is an all time low. In short, he’s putting fatter pitches nice and up in the zone.

What’s also interesting to note is his change-up has actually gained almost 3 mph. So not only is his fastball slowing a bit, his change is speeding up. What the heck? How does that happen?

Well, last May, Red Sox manager Terry Francona expressed a concern with Beckett’s repeatable mechanics. According to the massblog.com of last May 29th:

Josh Beckett’s return from the disabled list hit a roadblock yesterday after the Red Sox became concerned with the pitcher’s inability to repeat his delivery in a side session where he threw 20-25 pitches. Manager Terry Francona...said that Beckett was changing arm angles on his deliveries and that his inability to remain consistent is a cause for concern.

Also, early last season, in the Boston Globe, (former) pitching coach John Farrell said:

“An additional side with Josh to reinforce, particularly out of the stretch, him getting back to a proper balance point and not getting his delivery too spread out to where he loses a downhill plane to his fastball. When he gets into a proper position, his curveball is less readable by an opposing hitter. Part of this is a constant use of the slide step that can cause some of the habits that we’re trying to recorrect here.”

If Beckett’s fastball isn’t really losing all that much mph, but batters are hitting him harder and he’s walking more per 9IP, logic would dictate that Farrell and Francona are right and that Beckett’s mechanics are fried and he can’t locate like he used to. Seemingly this started somewhere in late 2009, when Beckett’s ERA ballooned from a mid-August low of 3.10 to a season’s end of 3.86 with a number of bad performances. Former pitching coach Farrell is quoted as saying on seacoastonline.com in late August after Beckett gave up 15 runs in 13.1 IP in 2 starts:

“(Poor) location of his pitches has caused the numbers to be where they are. It’s been a matter of missing with some fastballs up in the strike zone or a curveball that hasn’t had the same finish.’’ ... And, Farrell added, that is easily correctable.

“For the majority of the season, he’s been so dominant in the bottom of the strike zone,’’ Farrell said. “Now, every effort is being made to get him down in the zone again. ... But a little tidying of Beckett’s mechanics could produce a dramatic turnaround.
“There may be some times when maybe some added effort or an attempt to get some added velocity has caused him to get a little spread out (with his delivery) and caused him to throw the baseball on a little bit more of a flat plane rather than the downward angle that all pitchers need.’’

For Yankee fans, the question is clearly, “Can Josh Beckett return to dominance?” Early signs are.... not yet. Despite even more work on mechanics (new pitching coach Curt Young is shortening Beckett’s stride in an effort to get him to repeat his delivery more easily), spring training has been a repeat of last year, with nice flashes of hard heat and a sharp curve, then a terrible inning where he can’t seemingly get anyone out. So far, Beckett has the 5.02 ERA and a WHIP of 1.4.

Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz are an awesome number 1 and 2. John Lackey had a so-so 2010 and at age 32, it’s possible, but not guaranteed that he will be better in 2011, though most projections figure he will be somewhat better. In any event it’s questionable that Lackey will be as dominant as he used to be pitching to Jarrod Saltalamacchia in tiny Fenway Park. And Dice-K, minus a great 2008 season, has been a disappointment.

The key is Beckett. If he returns to form, the Red Sox have a dominant starting 3. If not...well then the Red Sox blew a sack full of money on a pitcher who’s busted.


Pete S said...

It's going to be tough for the Yankees to compete if Beckett and Lackey pitch well this year. The Sox have a lot of pitching talent.

blmeanie said...

Lackey holds more importance this season than Beckett does. If Lackey doesn't pitch well-enough then there is trouble in Boston. Buchy likely would fall back (hopefully only a little) so improvement needed from Lackey and Beckett.