The red flags about Josh Beckett are everywhere this year. His latest performance -- a six-inning, five-run (four earned) yield in Friday's 6-1 loss to the Blue Jays, will do little to mollify those whose anxiety about him is sky high.
And it’s tough to suggest that there hasn’t been ample grounds for concern about the 32-year-old. Beckett himself wasn’t looking for any silver linings from his performance, or his season.
“I can’t say that I’m looking at a whole lot of positives from that outing. I got burned whenever I didn’t make pitches," he said. "Obviously the results aren't where you want them to be. But you’ve got to keep going out there. That’s all you can really do."
Here’s a look at some of the areas of concern that have emerged during Beckett’s season.
1. Before the start of the year, he went to see two doctors about his right thumb. He received a cortisone shot to manage discomfort in the digit.
2. His first outing of the year was atrocious. He allowed seven runs in 4 2/3 innings, and his fastball velocity was often at 89-90 mph.
3. Beckett showed a slight uptick in his velocity (often working at 91-93 mph) while showing an ability to adapt to less power stuff over an impressive stretch that spanned his next eight starts. From April 13 through May 26, he had a 3.31 ERA and quality starts in seven of his eight trips to the mound.
4. Amidst that run, he did get skipped once due to stiffness in his lat. When he returned from the layoff, he was shelled in his first outing.
5. Since that stretch, in seven starts, he has not submitted consecutive quality starts. He has a 4.85 ERA since May 31.
6. In the middle of this string of inconsistent outings, he spent just over two weeks on the disabled list with what was described as right shoulder inflammation. During that time, it is believed that he received cortisone injections in both his shoulder and his thumb.
7. Prior to landing on the disabled list, Beckett had made six straight starts of at least seven innings. Since his return from the DL, he has yet to throw more than six innings in any of his four starts, though manager Bobby Valentine said that he felt the right-hander could have gone one more inning than he did on Friday.
8. Of the 102 starting pitchers who qualify for the ERA title in the majors, his 4.53 ERA ranks 77th.
9. The Red Sox are 6-10 when he takes the mound. That’s not entirely of his doing, of course, as the Sox offense has given him three or fewer runs of support in 10 of his 16 starts, including six of his last eight.
Those are the warning signs. In fairness, though, there are some salient counterpoints that should at least measure the sense of panic about the pitcher. Foremost:
1. He’s still able to generate strikeouts. On Friday, he struck out seven batters in six innings for the second straight game, and he now has 14 strikeouts in his last 12 innings.
2. Yes, he permitted somewhere between a few and a handful of rockets on Friday. But he also got a lot of bad contact from the Blue Jays, as evidenced by the fact that he got 10 ground-ball outs on Friday. In fact, just one of the 18 outs he recorded was via fly ball.
3. He’s not giving up home runs. At all. He has now gone 10 starts and 66 2/3 innings without permitting a longball, a marked contrast to the start of the year when he gave up nine homers in his first six starts. Indeed, his run of 10 straight starts without permitting a homer is both the longest of his career and the longest by any pitcher in the majors this year.
4. Most stats that remove the impact of luck and/or defense view Beckett in a far more favorable light than his record or ERA would suggest. He has an FIP (fielding-independent pitching, which calculates something akin to an ERA based solely on strikeouts, walks, hit batters and home runs) of 3.52, 30th among those 102 qualifying starters, just behind All-Star Matt Harrison and ahead of All-Stars such as C.J. Wilson and Yu Darvish.
His component ERA (ERC, which calculates something akin to an ERA based solely on the number of hits and walks allowed, is 3.48, a mark that ranks him 38th in the majors, just behind CC Sabathia and just ahead of Matt Garza. Both FIP and ERC are better predictors of future performance than is ERA, meaning that Beckett has been better than his numbers might indicate on the surface and that he is likely to experience some improvement in those numbers.
So, what to make of Beckett at this stage of his career? First, at this point, the top-end mid-90s velocity isn’t coming back. He’s a different pitcher in 2012 and going forward than he was prior to this year.
Thus far, he’s had a number of outings in which he’s shown the ability to pitch pretty well in spite of the still-respectable 91-93 mph fastball that now is his primary offering. As one team source put it, he’s “shown the ability to manage his decline well,” meaning that his ability to mix and shape his pitches has been good enough to keep opposing lineups, by and large, from hitting him all over the park.
He’s probably been a better pitcher this year than either his record would indicate (the run support he’s had in his defeats has significant responsibility for that record) or than his ERA would suggest (the fact that he has low walks and home run totals and respectable strikeout rates suggests someone whose ERA should be in the top 25-50 percent of pitchers in baseball).
But outing to outing, his results have been fairly inconsistent, and more broadly this year his health has been something other than a constant. The frequency of his medical issues this year suggests cause for concern about his short- and long-term health, particularly given the combination of shoulder issues and diminished velocity.
The team continues to express belief in the right-hander.
“Josh is a fighter and he's going to go out there and give us everything he's got every time,” teammate Will Middlebrooks said.
But the team, of course, does not have much choice but to embrace such a perspective and cling to the positives about his performance. Ultimately, Beckett is amidst a season in which he’s shown the capacity to be very good, but more recently -- aside from the fact that he hasn’t been giving up home runs at all -- he’s lacked the reliability of a top-of-the-rotation starter. Some of that is luck (no one wants to hear that, of course) and some of it is legitimately performance-based, but regardless, he’s been muddling through the summer.
That’s part of the pitching equation with which the Sox must reckon between now and July 31. What does it mean for the team’s chances that Beckett is now pitching like a No. 3 or No. 4 starter rather than a top-of-the-rotation starter?
Nere’s a look at where the Red Sox rotation stands.
-- Clay Buchholz is pitching like a top-of-the-rotation option over the last two months.
-- Jon Lester is pitching like a back-of-the-rotation starter, but out of necessity and track record (and without a health concern to suggest otherwise), the team has to believe that he’s capable of rebounding and being one of the better starters in the AL.
-- Beckett, more often than not, is keeping the Sox in the game despite his record; he has 10 quality starts in 16 outings, a 63 percent quality start percentage that is tied for 12th in the AL with Sabathia and Colby Lewis; he’s effective but neither overpowering nor a sure thing from a health standpoint.
-- Felix Doubront has shown the ability to dominate, but as a young pitcher, there’s some unpredictability to what he might do going forward, both because of the absence of track record and because there’s the possibility that he might hit the wall at some point.
-- Aaron Cook is pitching with an elite sinker right now, his best since his career prime in Colorado, though his staggeringly low strikeout rate (0.7 per nine innings) means that he’s a somewhat luck-dependent pitcher right now. Still, he’s given the Red Sox a lot to like, and the consistency of his ability to throw strikes, walk no one, give up no homers and get ground balls means that there’s the makings of a solid pitcher.
-- Franklin Morales waits in the wings should any of those pitchers falter.
At its essence, it’s a weird group. There’s guesswork involved in nearly every member of the rotation except Buchholz. At a time when the Red Sox need answers with the trade deadline just 10 days away, the Sox are instead confronted with ongoing questions about the state of their rotation. Beckett is a big part of that.