Watching Josh Beckett pitch these days, it's hard to remember how it felt to see him in 2007. Back then, he seemed infallible. If an opposing batter managed to make contact, it seemed more likely that Beckett had wanted to reduce his pitch count than that he had made a mistake. That infallibility was only reinforced by his ability to shut down playoff teams while the Red Sox battered opposing aces regularly.
If the Sox had an opportunity to sign Beckett to the extension they did yesterday after 2007, the decision would have been an easy one. Today, that decision is somewhat murkier.
Since 2007, we have watched Beckett struggle through an injury and mediocrity filled 2008, surrender 12 home runs over 4 games in late 2009, and most recently allow 5 runs in less than 5 innings to the Yankees on Opening Day. His playoff performances have been equally underwhelming, making it all the much more difficult to reconcile this pitcher with the ace of the World Series team.
So which is the real Josh Beckett?
It depends on what numbers you trust. By the standards of ERA, Josh Beckett has been good, but not great the last couple years. A 3.93 ERA puts him solidly in a second tier of hurler, including names like Lackey, Buehrle and Burnett instead of Grienke and Halladay. But immediately any fan of these 2010 Red Sox should ask "How much of that is really Beckett?" After all, the offseason was spent turning an inept defense into an elite one, in hopes of dropping ERAs ballooned by high BABIPs. And there is always just plain old bad luck—a fly ball to left in Fenway and one to right in Camden instead of vice versa turn outs into home runs.
xFIP (a statistic which judges pitchers based only on those aspects of the game they have proven to be able to control: strikeouts, walks, and fly balls vs. ground balls) paints a much more impressive picture of Beckett. In fact, it even suggests that Beckett has improved since 2007. Over the past 3 years, Beckett has ranked amongst the top 5 American League pitchers in xFIP, along with such aces of Justin Verlander, Felix Hernandez, and C.C. Sabathia. In fact, Beckett is the only pitcher to manage a top 5 finish in all 3 years.
When you consider the contracts signed by these other top pitchers in recent years, it's hard to see Beckett's deal as anything other than a bargain. Felix Hernandez will receive $15.6 million per year for 5 years, despite still having 2 more arbitration years during which he could have been expected to receive less had he not signed the extension. Justin Verlander, in the same situation, will receive $16 million per year for 5 years. And C.C. Sabathia received a 7-year $161 million contract in free agency despite having similar numbers and a rather more troubling physique. In comparison, Beckett is downright cheap at $68 million over 4 years.
Still, it's hard to ignore the ERA. Beckett has consistently performed worse than his FIPs have suggested he should, though it's questionable whether that is an actual characteristic (out or underperforming FIP), or just a blip on the radar that shouldn't be expected to continue. More importantly, though, even if we do see Beckett as being closer to his ERA than to his FIP, that does not make this a bad deal. Thanks to the A.J. Burnett and John Lackey deals, the market for this second tier of pitchers has changed over the last few offseasons. Both pitchers were considered top-of-the-rotation arms when they were signed without really fitting the mold of a true ace, and both received deals very similar to Beckett's, but with an extra year. If we accept that this is the new market for this second tier of pitchers, Josh Beckett actually comes in slightly under market price.
The remaining argument against the Beckett signing is "What are we missing out on in the next offseason?" The marquee names are obvious: Cliff Lee, and Brandon Webb. Of the two, Cliff Lee is the more impressive, having spent time dominating both leagues these last two years, and putting up playoff performances reminiscent of Beckett in 2007. Lee has had better FIPs than Beckett (though he was helped by miniscule HR/FB rates—their xFIPs are quite similar), and also the ERAs to back them up. But he is older than Beckett, and the bidding is likely to be fierce enough already, as both the Mariners and Yankees are likely to be gunning for him. Webb, on the other hand, has the specter of being a national league pitcher hanging over him, and after last year's injury is an undefined quantity with an undefined market. Looking at these possible replacements, Beckett seems to obviously be the safest choice. And since they are getting a discount on him to begin with, it's hard to justify passing on the extension.
My last remaining concern lies in the budget in general, though this shouldn't really effect our decision to sign Beckett. Before the Lackey and Beckett signings, it seemed as though the Red Sox were going to have a lot of resources to play around with next offseason. With the added $33 million on 2 rotation spots, the team will already be spending $100 million before dealing with 7 arbitration-eligible players (including Jonathan Papelbon), and will have quite a bit less flexibility to fill the various holes left by free agency. Still, looking at Beckett's deal by itself, the Red Sox will likely get at least their money's worth—and it's hard to be upset about that.