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The Curious Case of Josh Beckett

Josh Beckett is having an incredible year for the Red Sox. He is third in the AL in ERA (2.43), first in ERA+ (170) and rWAR even has him third in total value among AL pitchers (though the FIP based fWAR is much more conservative, ranking him 11th). This spectacular season comes after a harsh 2010, in which Becket battled injuries, ineffectiveness and sheer bad luck. Watching Josh Beckett this year, it is clear that he is a different pitcher. He has been able to hit his spots consistently and his viscous curve ball has been downright nasty once again. So what exactly is strange about Josh Beckett?

In the past three seasons, Beckett has been using his cutter with increasing frequency. Beckett got a good number of ground balls before he began mixing in cutters and his past two seasons, he has been posting strong ground ball tendencies, just as we might expect.  In 2010, he threw the pitch more than ever, going to it 15.3% of the time and posted a 45.8% ground ball rate, consistent with his career average of 44.8%. This season Beckett has thrown more cutters than ever before (18.1%) and yet, for the first time ever, Josh Beckett has become a fly ball pitcher. He currently owns a GB/FB rate of .91, the 9th lowest ratio in the league- a surprising turn for a man who has a 1.22 career average. Yet, Beckett is having a fantastic year, with a miniscule .232 BABIP and a HR/9 rate of .88. That doesn’t add up.

Beckett might be finding success in the air as a result of pitching up in the zone more with his fastball. Pitch/FX has Beckett throwing a four-seamer and a two-seamer in addition to the cut fast ball and both of those pitches have been throw higher in the zone than in past seasons, especially against left-handed hitters. High fastballs tend to produce fly balls, which have a low batting average on balls in play. Additionally, Beckett’s cutter does not have much of a downward movement compared to his other fastballs. Instead, the pitch breaks away from righties. He throws the pitch to the same side of the plate for the most part, inside to lefties and away from righties, but he uses the pitch up in the zone as well as down- unlike ground ball heavy pitchers like teammate Jon Lester. His cutter has been fantastic this season, with a pitch value of 8.4 runs saved.

Beckett is also posting his highest swinging strike percentage as a Red Sox (9.9%). High fastballs are known for swings and misses as well as fly balls. If that is the case, with his ability to hit the mid-nineties, it is surprising that Beckett hasn’t gone up in the zone more in the past. Hitters are swinging and missing more and obviously making weaker contact when they do connect.

That said, Beckett is not allowing home runs the way we might expect him to given this sudden shift in style. Proponents of xFIP would argue that he has simply been lucky and we should not ignore the impact of luck on Beckett’s numbers (no one can sustain a BABIP that low forever). However, Beckett’s xFIP of 3.60 is still very good and he has sustained similar HR/FB rates in the past. At this point, his reinvention as a fly ball pitcher can certainly survive a regression in his home run rate. His high strikeout and low walk rates will minimize the damage of a few extra home runs. Meanwhile, the extra fly balls have squashed his BABIP and led to his lowest ever WHIP (.969 second only to Justin Verlander, another fly ball pitcher).

If you are a regular here, you might have noticed I am rather enamored with pitchers who combine high strikeout rates and excellent ground ball rates (see Lester, Jon). While that skill set certainly has its charm, it is certainly not the only way to succeed. Josh Beckett has found another way, risking a few more balls in the air and being rewarded with more easy outs. Despite the cutter’s reputation as a ground ball pitch, Beckett has used it effectively as a fly ball pitcher. It will be interesting to see if he sustains his new style in the coming years. What we know about rate stabilization suggests he will. While this change in style may be unexpected, it is certainly a positive thing given what we are seeing this season.