The storyline could be a very different one.
At 32 years old, Josh Beckett is not the same pitcher than he was when the Red Sox acquired him to enormous fanfare back in 2006. He no longer lights up the radar gun, yet he has adapted to a new arsenal, showing the kind of feel for his craft that was so often absent back in that 2006 season.
Aside from enduring a brutal 2010 season in which he was never physically comfortable while dealing all year with injuries, Beckett has made that transition remarkably well. He has two horrendous outings this year that have skewed his overall numbers (he is 4-4 with a 4.38 ERA that is worse than league average), but he's otherwise been one of the most consistent starters not just on the Sox but in the American League.
Of his eight outings, six have ranked as quality starts (six-plus innings, three or fewer earned runs). That 75 percent rate of quality starts ranks sixth in the American League, ahead of, among others, Justin Verlander, Felix Hernandez, C.J. Wilson and David Price. The bad has been very bad, but those two starts have been the extreme aberrations for a pitcher who has otherwise done a great deal to position his team for victories in three-quarters of his starts.
This is the story that his teammates see.
“Everybody has to evolve. You’re not going to have that [high-90s] stuff for your whole career. You’re not going to see that anymore because obviously the steroid era is over,” noted Sox starter Jon Lester. “You’re not going to throw 95-plus for your whole life. Everybody has to adapt and figure out new ways that work for you.
“Over the past year, he’s had to do that. That’s the evolution of a pitcher after a lot of innings. It’s fun to watch. A lot of guys don’t accept it. I’m not saying that his stuff has really deteriorated. He’s still throwing 93-94, but it’s just not the 97 that we got used to when he first came over.”
Yet that’s not how Beckett feels he’s being perceived.
Maybe it’s because of his reputation when he turned pro. After all, Josh Beckett claimed amateur legend status in Texas some 15 years ago because his arm channeled lightning.
Back then, he was Kid Heat, the Texas legend with the word “Phenom” stenciled across his baseball jacket, the one who earned comparisons to Roger Clemens and Kerry Wood and Nolan Ryan at the time he was drafted. His fastball roared across the plate at 99 mph, his curveball left his high school opponents in tears, and the legions of scouts who saw his every outing could do no more than shake their heads. No one threw harder.
That’s not who Beckett is anymore. It’s not by design. It’s the reality of being 32 instead of 18.
“I’ve thrown every pitch of my whole career as hard as I can. Whether it be a changeup, a curveball, the grip does the subtraction for me. But I have thrown every pitch as hard as I can,” explained Beckett. “I’ve never been a guy where I’ve felt like, ‘Oh, you know what? I’m just going to throw a little BP heat.’ I’d probably bounce it, first of all, because I’m so accustomed to throwing the ball as hard as I can. I don’t think I could do that. Be a dart-thrower -- it’s not me.”
And that’s not what he is. According to the Pitch F/X data compiled at brooksbaseball.net, he’s averaging 92.3 mph on his four-seam fastball and 92.1 mph on his two-seamer this year. Both marks represent career lows (a year ago, he averaged 93.8 mph on both pitches), but it’s not like he’s turned into Jamie Moyer, even though he feels as if he’s being treated as if he’s pitching like the 49-year-old.
“It seems like that’s what it is because every start I have got to answer questions about my velocity. I don’t know. I thought I get paid to get outs,” Beckett mused. “I don’t feel like I’m out there throwing eighty-[expletive]-five mph. But it seems like that’s all I get credit for. I’m at 91-93 now instead of 94-96. It’s really, what, three miles an hour?”
After all, there’s been little furor with Yankees starter CC Sabathia, whose fastball these days -- a four-seamer at 93.0 mph, a two-seamer at 92.2 mph -- is not so different from Beckett’s. Felix Hernandez is averaging 92.0 mph on his four-seamer and 91.4 mph on his two-seamer -- down three or four mph from his career averages -- but no one seems to care because he has a 2.80 ERA and entered last night first in the American League in strikeouts.
Yes, the conversation about velocity vexes Josh Beckett. But it also amuses him.
“Your body fat is down when you’ve got a good ERA. You don’t throw too many cutters when you’ve got a good ERA. It’s amazing,” Beckett said. “If you’ve got a good ERA it’s like all is right. Nobody is looking for a reason why you have a low ERA. But when you have a high ERA, then they are looking for a reason why you have a high ERA.”
The right-hander recalled the treatment former teammate Brad Penny received as a young pitcher from former Marlins manager Jack McKeon.
“McKeon was big on, ‘If you pitched bad you were fat, and if you pitched good you were fine.’ He would go to the media every time Penny would pitch and he would be like, ‘He was skinny this week,’ ” Beckett said with amusement. “And it was kind of like a joke, but that is kind of how it was. I think it just started with Penny having a bad outing or something like that and Jack airing him out to the media about being fat. And then his next start he went eight innings with two hits and 12 punchouts. ‘So, Jack, what do you think Penny did?’ ‘Oh, well, he is skinny again. It’s been five days. He must have lost about 40 pounds in five days.’”
The reality is that in most of his outings this year, Josh Beckett has had more than enough fastball velocity to be a damn good pitcher. But his formula to achieve that status is very different than the one that he followed in the past.
THE REALITY OF AGE (IN A POST-STEROID WORLD)
The fact that Beckett doesn’t have the same fastball that he did 15, 10 or five years ago is not a surprise. In a world where baseball has tried to eliminate performance-enhancing drugs that permitted pitchers to defy the laws of aging and workload, it’s an inevitability.
“My body feels a lot different [than it did at 22]. I don’t think it’s the age thing though, I think it’s the amount of innings. I think I’m probably getting close to 1,800-1,900 innings,” said Beckett, who has tallied 1,771 innings in the majors and 1,995 1/3 in his professional career. “If you ask anybody who has 1,800-1,900 innings vs. whenever you asked them if they had 200 innings in the big leagues, it is a lot different.
“The normal progression is the one I’m on -- maybe not the progression of so many years ago where guys maybe sustain[ed] their velocity a little bit differently. I think I’m more on the traditional arc than maybe some other guys.”
That creates a challenge and a need to adapt. There were nights, like in Game 6 of the 2003 World Series or virtually every time that he took the hill in the 2007 postseason, when life was very, very simple for Josh Beckett. There was plenty of high-octane gas in the tank, the combination of a fastball, changeup and curve was going to be more than any of his opponents could handle and all parties knew it.
Now, in a world where he does not have the 95-97 mph (or more) heater at his disposal, the task is different and more challenging.
“It’s harder,” Beckett said. “It was a lot more fun when you throw 98 because it’s easier. You just learn how to do some different things and maybe they’ll hit it at some guys. It’s not less fun it’s just harder. It’s definitely more work.”
Yet Beckett has positioned himself to execute by finding new ways of attacking opponents. He developed a cutter in 2007 but has employed it with ever-increasing frequency since then, to the point where it now represents a staple of his arsenal. In 2009, his commitment to the two-seam fastball changed as he turned it into a primary weapon, a pitch that would paralyze lefties by starting at their belt buckle and then clip the inner half of the plate. More recently, he’s developed a second changeup grip -- a split-finger grip, in addition to the regular circle change that had long been a part of his arsenal.
The alterations were gradual. But the collective impact has been that Beckett is, at 32, capable of succeeding with diminished fastball velocity.
There was a time, Beckett acknowledged, when he felt that big numbers on radar guns were needed in order for him to be a good pitcher. But he’s moved well beyond that phase of his career.
“I don’t think I knew that I could [make the transition to pitching with less velocity]. I have seen other people do it though,” Beckett said. “I don’t know how confident I was that I could do it, but I have seen other people do it. You make adjustments as the game goes on. Going back as far as 21 might be a little far, but I think it’s kind of like every year progression you learn something different. And then it kind of ends up leading to this part of your career.”
THE RED SOX’ PERSPECTIVE
That Beckett is having to adjust to different weapons is not a shock to his employers. The team signed him in the spring of 2010 to the four-year, $68 million extension that took effect in 2011, a contract that covers his age 31-34 seasons -- older, but still not old, for a pitcher.
When the Sox discussed that deal with Beckett, they had to confront the reality that there was a very good chance that, over the life of the deal, he would become less of a power pitcher, at least as determined by radar gun readings. Yet the team had seen enough to believe that he could make a successful transition.
“At that point, he had been everything we wanted him to be as a pitcher and an important part of the team,” Sox general manager Ben Cherington said. “He had pitched here and could handle everything in Boston, so we felt like in getting a year ahead of free agency, we were able to get a deal that was fair for the market for that kind of pitcher. All the ducks kind of lined up.
“That was definitely a point of conversation, can he sort of evolve into a different guy over the course of the contract,” he continued. “We thought he might have to. We thought he had enough feel for how to manipulate the baseball, even though he hadn’t done it all the time, to be able to do that. He showed before that contract some ability to manipulate the fastball, have a cutter.”
The fact that Beckett had maintained consistency in his peripheral numbers -- high strikeout and low walk rates as well as relatively low home run rates given his residence in the AL East -- convinced the team that Beckett was a pitcher who was capable of keeping the upper hand in the perpetual cat-and-mouse game.
And by and large, the team feels that perspective has been borne out. His stuff still plays.
He’s had two starts this year when his routine has been thrown out of whack. Both have yielded brutal lines that, perhaps because of the circumstances, seemed to raise red flags, but in retrospect they represented isolated occurrences.
One was his first start of the year, after he’d spent the last week of spring training seeking out specialists on his injured right thumb. There were 10 days between his final spring training start to his first start of the year against the Tigers, when he was pounded for seven runs and five homers in just 4 2/3 innings.
The second came after his 126-pitch outing against the White Sox and the infamous golfgate after the Sox elected to skip him. Again, Beckett had 10 days off. Again, Beckett got shelled, permitting as many runs (7) as he recorded outs over 2 1/3 innings.
But those results have been the exceptions to what has otherwise been a very steady string of outings. In his six starts on a normal between-starts schedule, he is 4-2 with a 2.55 ERA, 35 strikeouts and 12 walks in 42 1/3 innings.
His strikeout numbers this year are down, though much of that reflects on a single outing against the Rays on April 13, when Tampa Bay clearly had a game plan to attack early in the count resulting in tons of early count contact (and weak ground balls) in an eight-inning, one-run, one-strikeout effort. That outing aside, Beckett has struck out 39 batters in 41 1/3 innings this year – a rate of 8.5 strikeouts per nine innings that actually exceeds his career average of 8.4 strikeouts per nine.
As for whether there’s enough power on his fastball, the Sox feel that the answer is unequivocal.
“There’s times now when it looks like his fastball is playing even better now than it did at higher velocities. Maybe there’s some added deception in there somehow,” Cherington said. “He’s certainly moving the ball around more and commanding it when he’s on, commanding better than he did in the past. The changeup is more of a go-to pitch for him. I think he’s keeping guys off his fastball, and the fastball is playing up even at a lesser velocity.”
Beckett comes off as a pitcher with complete confidence in his pitch mix and the idea that he has everything at his disposal to succeed so long as he executes his game plans. The process of shutting down opposing lineups might be more effortful than when he was a colt pitching for the Marlins or even at an earlier point in his Red Sox career, but for the most part this year he’s shown an ability to live up to that challenge.
Still, the fact that living up to his performance standards requires greater effort carries with it a background question: Just how long does Beckett want to keep doing this?
That, Beckett suggests, is a question for another day. After the expiration of his current deal following the 2014 season, he plans on discussing the next step for his career with his family.
“I think at the end of this contract I’ll probably sit down and just probably come up with the situation that is best for our family and not necessarily me,” Beckett said. “That is what happens when you have a family, you don’t just get to think about you. I got to think about myself for a long time, so I felt like I was blessed to run into my wife when I did later on and everything like that.
“I think we will figure it out and at the end of this contract, if it’s best for my family just to go back to Texas, we will do that. If we can -- if something else works best for us, then that’s what we will do.”
But the idea that pitching is now more challenging will have nothing to do with that conversation.
“Absolutely not,” Beckett said.
After all, on the mound, Beckett has offered plenty of reason to believe that he can find new formulas for success even while inserting different elements into the equation. He is a different pitcher in 2012 than he was in 2002 or 2007, but the right-hander sees no reason to believe that his craft is getting the better of him.