2011 Josh Beckett: Fluke or Different Pitcher?

Early last season Josh Beckett signed a contract extension that seemed to be a risky bet for the Red Sox. Beckett has always been more of a "thrower" than a "pitcher" and guys like that don't generally age well. Those concerns seemed well founded in 2010; Beckett muddled through an injury plagued season in which he approached his 2006 level of HR/FB% on his way to a career worst ERA. So far in 2011 the picture seems much improved, and currently Beckett is sporting an amazing 1.86 ERA in 92 innings of work. Has Beckett changed or is this just small sample size luck?

Just casually looking at the numbers suggest that Beckett has been lucky. He is sporting a LOB% of 84.3% (career 72.1%) and his HR/FB% is an unsustainable 3.9%. These things of course cannot be maintained. Furthermore, his K/9 is the lowest it has been since 2006, his BB/9 is the highest it has been in any full season since 2006, his BABIP is 0.217 and his average velocity on his fastball has never been lower. All of these facts scream "regression" despite the fact that his peripherals are good (2.98 FIP, 3.69 xFIP). Ironically, Beckett's xFIP is only marginally better than last year's. Beckett generally underperforms his peripherals, and it is thus amusing that currently his FIP-ERA=1.12.

the above facts suggest that Beckett isn't a different pitcher, only a luckier one. I would like to suggest that a close look at the numbers so far (always a danger with only 92 innings) actually paints a more complex picture. While Beckett has been somewhat fortunate, his pitching approach is radically different today than it was, say, in 2007. In 2007 Beckett was basically a 2 pitch pitcher. He had a monster fastball and amazing curveball and that is basically it. In 07 thse 2 pitches were plus plus in terms of success (+17.8/+11.5) and he threw one or the other 88.2% of the time. Fastforward to 2011 and things are completely different. Beckett is throwing both the fastball and curveball at (AL) career low levels, and throwing either fastball or curveball at (total) career low levels (a mere 68% of the time). Instead, Beckett is throwing cutters and changes at career high marks (32% of the time Beckett throws a cutter or a change in 2011, and the cutter alone is his second favorite pitch). This change of style is not completely new; it appears the makeover started last year. The big difference is that he is throwing the cutter+change even more in '11 and that these 2 pitches are plus for him this year while they were below average last year.

Why the change of approach? Beckett has always been a pitcher who had much more success against righties than lefties. His career OPS against LHB is rather substandard for a top-of-the-line starter (0.726 including this season). However this year he has shown no L/R split of note. If you want to get lefties out as a RHP, one potent way to do it is with decent cutters and changeups. It would appear Beckett and the Sox staff were aware of his split deficiencies and worked to fix the problem. As Beckett ages, the newfound diversity in his pitching approach will likely serve him well.

Further evidence that Beckett's work so far this year has been good as a result of more than just good fortune is that fact that his LD% is very low (16.1%) leading to a career second best tERA of 3.00 and suggesting that his BABIP, while unsustainably low, has not been a complete fluke. Also interesting is the fact that while his K rate is down, his swinging strike percentage is markedly up (9.7%-best Beckett has had by far in the AL). In fact this is perhaps the most clear indicator of his changed approach, as he used to generate a ton of looking strikeouts with his curve and now used his larger arsenal of pitches to simply keep hitters off balance.

Going forward, we cannot expect Josh Beckett to maintain his HR rates, LOB% or even his paltry ERA, but there is decent evidence that his success is, in part, not a fluke, and is based on a very interesting change of approach.