May 9, 2007

Beckett: 7-0 ... And He's Pitching Well

Josh Beckett has received credit for a win in each of his seven starts this season. But what's more impressive is that he's also pitching extremely well. That might seem redundant, but an attractive win-loss record by itself tells us next-to-nothing about a pitcher's actual performance.

Beckett won 16 games last year, tops on the Sox. I have heard sports announcers point to that fact as proof that Beckett pitched quite well in his first American League season. Of course, any Red Sox fan worth her salt knows that, after his first three starts in 2006, Beckett was pretty much horrible. He allowed a career-high 36 home runs (previous high: 16), walked 74 batters, hit 10 more, threw 11 wild pitches, and finished with an ERA of 5.01. Beckett pitched 1/3 of an inning more than Curt Schilling, but allowed 30 additional runs. Beckett's ERA+ in 2006 (92) was about the same as Manny Delcarmen's (91).

The Red Sox have scored an average of 8.39 runs per game in Beckett's starts. On the other hand, Tim Wakefield, who has outpitched Beckett this season and may be the top moundsman in the AL, has received only 3.4 runs per start. His record is 3-3. Obviously, having your teammates score five more runs in any of your outings will increase your chances of getting a W.

But has Beckett's gaudy run support helped him post a better record than he should have, given his performance?
Date  Opp IP   H  R ER BB SO Score
0404 @KCR 5 2 1 1 4 5 7-1
0410 SEA 7 2 1 1 0 8 14-3
0416 LAA 6 6 1 1 1 5 7-2
0421 NYY 6.2 9 5 4 2 7 7-5
0426 @BAL 8 8 2 2 0 3 5-2
0502 OAK 7 6 3 3 2 7 6-4
0508 @TOR 7 5 1 1 1 5 9-2
Any pitcher can lose a 1-0 game, but the only game that really stands out as poor is April 21 against the Yankees. Beckett struggled in the first two innings (plus one batter into the third), allowing six hits and four runs. Fortunately for him, his teammates also scored four runs in the first two innings. Beckett settled down in the third and Boston got three more runs in the fourth. (In his next start, Beckett trailed 2-1 to the Orioles in the eighth, but Wily Mo Pena's grand slam got him off the hook.)

The important thing is not his 7-0 record, but his 2.51 ERA, 6th best in the AL. He has allowed only two home runs in 46.2 innings. At last year's pace, he would have given up 8.2 home runs by this time.

As I mentioned, Wakefield's record is 3-3, despite being #2 in ERA (2.11), #1 in fewest hits allowed per 9 IP (6.57), and #1 in both lowest opponents' batting average (.197) and slugging percentage (.303). Wakefield's only weakness has been walks (18 in 38.1 innings).
Date  Opp  IP  H  R ER BB SO Score Dec
0406 @TEX 6 3 2 1 2 4 0-2 L
0413 LAA 7 5 1 1 2 3 10-1 W
0418 @TOR 7 4 1 1 3 4 4-1 W
0423 TOR 6 8 4 3 2 5 3-7 L
0428 @NYY 5.1 5 3 3 6 3 1-3 L
0504 @MIN 7 3 0 0 3 2 2-0 W
With a little more run support, there is no reason why Wakefield could not be 6-0 right now. Yet some of the top baseball "analysts" in the country would look at his W-L record and say Wakefield has been "average" while Beckett has been "perfect". (Nick Cafardo disses Wake's in today's Globe: "With all due respect to Curt Schilling's fine start, Beckett is the team's top starter.")

Daisuke Matsuzaka has also pitched better (3.46 ERA) in his "losses" than in his "wins (4.95). Dice got saddled with his losses in games Boston dropped 3-0 and 2-1.

One of the most amazing stretches of pitching well with no support I've ever seen happened in 1999 to Randy Johnson.
          IP  H  R ER BB  K  Arizona
0625 STL 9 5 1 1 2 14 Lost 1-0
0630 @CIN 8 7 2 2 0 17 Lost 2-0
0705 @STL 8 4 1 1 4 12 Lost 1-0
0710 OAK 7 3 2 1 4 11 Lost 2-0
0715 @TEX 8 6 0 0 2 8 ND, lost 3-2
40 25 6 5 12 62
The first three of those outings were complete games (in the first one, Jose Jiminez threw a no-hitter). Johnson's ERA in those five starts was 1.13, but he was 0-4.

Last July, Seth Mnookin wrote about Beckett's poor performances:
Here's one theory, and it's one that's at least been discussed within Yawkey Way: Beckett has never learned how to pitch.

At first blush, that probably seems like a ridiculous statement. ... [In the NL] Beckett could, more often than not, rely on his natural ability to overpower and overwhelm the opposition. In the AL, he'll get his share of strike-outs, but he'll also find that there are plenty of hitters who can use the power he generates to smash a ball into the stands. ... When he's not blowing pitchers away, he's often getting lit up.

So what does that mean going forward? When it's working for him, Beckett has a jaw-droppingly nasty curve, and there's no reason he can't learn to mix in a little Greg Maddux with his Nolan Ryan. ... But that transition is going to take a bit of time.
Or maybe not so much time at all. This season, Beckett has made some changes in his delivery and pitch selection that has given him the type of success we expected when he came over from Florida.

He's been relying on his breaking pitches much more often -- throwing them in counts that would normally lend themselves to a fastball -- with fantastic results. He did just the opposite last year, pitching as though he thought if he could just throw the next pitch a little harder, he'd be okay.

Beckett has also slowed his delivery down and no longer lifts his hands over his head when beginning his delivery. And when pitching from the stretch, he barely moves his hands from his belt. He is also pitching from the middle of the rubber. All of this has helped him improve his command.

What will happen when Beckett really gets hammered? Will he implode like he was prone to do last year? Or will he be able to minimize the damage? In that game against the Yankees, he did not let things spiral out of control, keeping the game tied until his mates could grab a lead.

Last night at Skydome was another test. After Youkilis's home run had given Boston a 1-0 lead, Beckett came out and surrendered a home run to Rios on his very first pitch. His third pitch was ripped for a double -- and Vernon Wells was up. But Beckett calmed down and got out of the inning. When he took the mound again, he had a 4-1 lead. The next inning, it was 8-1. And he was able to keep the Jays off the board for the rest of the night.


Zenslinger said...

Assessing Wake's year is an interesting conundrum. In Beckett's case conventional wisdom says that Something Has Changed and we can expect him to be almost as good as this for the rest of the year. But in Wake's case, we tend to think that it's only a streak. At what point do we turn around and say he's having a great year? Sub-3 ERA at the All-star break?

Jere said...

Nice job on the female default in this post.

Or should I say "de-salt"? A-ha-ha-ha. Ha hahaha ha. ha . ugh.

(I'd been waiting to see if anyone would notice...)