Josh Beckett's 4-year contract extension provoked some interesting reactions. While most people were varying degrees of ecstatic, a small but vocal contingent were not. For some, it was more about personality than performance; but others aren't fully convinced of Beckett's worth to the team.
Let's face it - something isn't right about Beckett. For such a heralded pitcher, he became second fiddle to Jon Lester far too quickly. What follows are my five theories as to why Beckett's performance hasn't been the best on the team, and why he can be a frustrating player to root for.
1. The Regular Season
Beckett is ace-like in two contexts: the playoffs (when healthy), and the advanced stats: FIP, xFIP, tRA, what have you. The playoffs are a small sample size in which, despite lackluster series in '08 and '09, he has done extremely well (3.07 ERA, 0.940 WHIP overall). FIP and other stats love Beckett because he gets lots of strikeouts and doesn't walk people, both of which are good things. However, as others have noted, Beckett's actual regular season performance, as measured by ERA, has lagged his FIP repeatedly in recent years. In other words, he hasn't been as good as his peripherals (BB, Ks, HRs) would suggest. Some of this may be related to defense - the Sox had great defense in Beckett's superb 2007, but poor D last year. I think it's also related strongly to theory #2. In any event, Beckett has had some rather disappointing seasons in his Red Sox career.
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Josh basically has three pitches: fastball, curveball, and change.* His 95-mph heater sets up the other pitches, and he depends on the curveball to get strikes and throw off the balance. The rare changeup gives another look. When all of his pitches are working, Beckett's pitching is a thing of beauty. But when he can't establish the fastball or throw the curve for strikes (as was the case Opening Game), Beckett becomes very vulnerable. Without the curve, players can sit fastball, and ignore the odd change (at the best of times rarely a strike). And without fastball command, he's either missing over the plate and serving up spicy meatballs to hitters, or missing the plate entirely.
Don't get me wrong, poor fastball command or losing a key pitch will hurt any pitcher. But someone with more good pitches has more weapons to turn to when the going gets tough. Lester, for example, has a power heater, a superb cut-fastball, and a strong curve, in addition to his change (and the fact he's lefthanded). Lester routinely gets strikes on three pitches, which is a big reason why he has become the Sox ace.
When you're a diligent fan, you watch every game you can. And because you're reading OTM, we know you're a diligent fan. When you watch a pitcher all season (or almost all season), you'll see a lot of bad starts. Strong negative emotions typically are remembered better than ordinary positive ones; the quality start gets forgotten, while the 5-run fourth inning often sticks with you. Likewise, when Sabathia or Halladay shuts the Sox down, the pain of that game is likely to stick in your mind, contributing to their aura of invincibility. The fans who are watching them all year will be treated to some spectacular blow-ups. It's easy to look at other players - Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay - and think the grass is greener, the Aces are Ace-lier on another team, especially when you don't see as much of them.
When Beckett carelessly hurls a flawless 95-mph fastball with great location by a hitter in a game where he's given up four runs, it's exasperating. He has the skills to wipe out World Series teams - why can't he hold down the Rays / Royals tonight? Call it Clay Buchholz syndrome - the anguish resulting from watching a player with spectacular stuff repeatedly fail to live up to their potential. A reality of baseball is that great pitchers have bad and mediocre days, but it doesn't make it any easier to sit through.
5. Recent Playoff History
Beckett's last two postseasons have been disappointing. In both years, the team was counting on him to produce, and he wasn't able to. The 2008 playoffs were due to injury - Beckett was clearly not himself, and given that his gutsy performance in game six of the ALDS actually bordered on heroics (5ip, just 2 runs, against a Rays team that was on fire). In 2009 he just didn't pitch all that well, and the Sox bats didn't pick him up. After two disappointing playoffs, his amazing 2007 season is starting to be forgotten.
These reasons, some specific to Beckett, some true of any player, are among those why Beckett is taking a little flak right now. There's a whole thread full of arguments in his defense, but for me, the most convincing is money. From 2007-2009, Josh provided us with around $73.1 million in value, according to Fangraphs; an average of $21 million a year. Even if he suffers some age-related decline, it's still likely over the course of the contract he'd be worth more than the $17 million he's making annually. In any event, we'll have plenty of time to discuss the wisdom, or lack thereof, of Beckett's extension over the next four years.
*You could break his FB down further into the straight 4-seamers and the sinking 2-seamers, however, he relies on the 4-seamer.