The Red Sox have arrived at a point in the year where the wins are more urgent. The team trails in the wild-card race by a full game, and must seek to restore order in a second half whose soundtrack has been a screeching record needle.
And yet there is almost certain to be a prevailing sense of calm that permeates the Sox clubhouse in Toronto today. For that fact, the reason is simple.
The Red Sox will have Josh Beckett on the mound on Tuesday.
Beckett is amidst the sort of run that invites comparisons to the best in recent memory among Red Sox pitchers. For the last three months, he has resided at an altitude that had previously been occupied by a select few, the Mt. Rushmore of Boston pitchers.
“(There’s) definitely a sense of confidence, (as with) the Pedros, the Curts,” said catcher Jason Varitek, comparing Beckett to former aces Pedro Martinez and Curt Schilling. “They’re so, so different from them, all three of them. But (Beckett) has been a guy who we’ve been able to rely on a lot.
“It’s huge. You don’t want to take it for granted, but you kind of hope and expect that out of your ace.”
Beckett has made an incredible eight starts this year in which he has pitched at least six innings without allowing an earned run. That is the most such starts in the majors this year, putting Beckett a notch above a who’s-who of aces – tied for second place with seven such outings are Felix Hernandez, Tim Lincecum, Johan Santana and Justin Verlander.
“He’s in very select company,” said pitching coach John Farrell. “He’s in a very small group of pitchers at the major-league level with the consistency of results that he produced.”
That number of scoreless starts is all the more incredible when one realizes that Beckett has had all eight of those outings in a 15-outing span that started on May 23. He has held opponents without an earned run in more than half of his starts over a span of nearly three months.
During that time, he is 10-2 with a 1.89 ERA. Those are Pedro-esque numbers. Indeed, Beckett is doing some Pedro-like things (see chart). Beckett has delivered, in short, total domination.
“I think it gets overshadowed, the type of year that he’s having. A lot of people see the ERA for the year and say, ‘Oh – the low-threes. That’s what he’s capable of,’” said teammate Mike Lowell, who has played with Beckett for the pitcher’s entire big-league career. “I’m just disappointed that it wasn’t the first month as well because his numbers would be absolutely ridiculous. He’d probably be at a 1.70 ERA. Now you’re talking about one of the greatest years ever.”
Beckett’s numbers on the year are impressive enough. He is 14-4 with a 3.10 ERA. He leads the majors in wins, and is in strong position for his second 20-win season in three years.
He ranks sixth in the American League in ERA, and is among A.L. leaders in strikeouts, strikeout-to-walk ratio, hits per nine innings, walks plus hits per nine innings… Basically, if there is a meaningful statistical marker of dominance, Beckett ranks among the elite of pitchers in his league.
Yet his season-long numbers tell only part of the story thanks to a dreadful – and, in retrospect, shocking – start to the season. Through April 30, he was 2-2 with a 7.22 ERA. He was getting togged, enduring a stretch at one point in which he allowed 10 or more hits in three straight outings.
Obviously, the time when Beckett seemed eminently hittable is now a distant memory. Instead, the Sox have what borders on a feeling of invincibility on the days when Beckett takes the hill.
In 2007, after Game 5 of the American League Championship Series against the Indians – when Beckett spit in the face of the Sox’ 3-1 deficit in the best-of-seven series by allowing five hits in eight innings – Lowell marveled at what his teammate was doing and had done in his postseason history.
“He’s got something others don’t have,” he said at the time. “There is a different feel for us when he takes the mound.”
At the time, the claim reflected on Beckett’s insane performances in the 2003 and 2007 playoffs. Now, Lowell acknowledges, the claim is true for the better part of the 2009 season, sustained over several months rather than just a few starts. Beckett has vaulted himself into contention for the Cy Young award (something about which the right-hander insists he does not care), and has put the Sox in a position where they can win virtually every time he takes the hill.
“I guess I’d rather him start off slow and carry us through than start off quick for a month and struggle. We’ll take him the way he is right now,” Lowell said. “It seems like he’s giving us innings and not giving up anything. He’s really putting us in a position where the days we don’t swing the bats, we’re still in the game, but the days we do swing the bats it’s an easy win.”
This is not the first time that the Sox have enjoyed that feeling. In ’07, Beckett made good on the incredible hype that accompanied him to the majors. He went 20-7 with a 3.27 ERA, finished second in the Cy Young balloting, then carried his team through October.
Yet this year, over these past few months especially, he has been even more dominant. And for that, it is not merely the physical gifts that Beckett possesses – a powerful pitcher’s frame, the ability to unload fastballs in the mid- and high-90s, the talent to spin a curve that can freeze opposing hitters – that is at play.
Teammates credit a few factors for Beckett’s methodical dominance. First, his work ethic remains the gold standard for Sox pitchers. The right-hander is purposeful in each day building up to his start, which carries over to game day.
“All of us in uniform recognize that he’s been in control here,” said Farrell. “When you see the work that he puts in, it’s not a surprise to anyone that he’s been able to maintain it for this long.
“He’s in control of the moment, the here and now. He’s not allowed the success or the results to get him too far ahead of today’s work, whether it’s day one, day four or day five—game day.”
His physical strength is complemented by incredible focus. Beckett talks about stripping the past or the future from his thought process to do one simple thing: focus on the moment. It sounds easy, but the task of maintaining intense concentration can be exhausting, sometimes even impossible to sustain.
Yet Beckett has shown a Zen-link ability to remain locked in with nearly every pitch that he’s thrown, offering clinics in execution.
“The stuff has always been there,” said Lowell. “He’s just in that groove where he knows his exact plan of attack and he has the stuff to do it.”
But Beckett has not taken that stuff for granted. Instead, one sometimes-overlooked aspect of the pitcher’s game has helped him to access an even more unhittable arsenal than the one that he featured in ’07.
Beckett, according to Farrell, has tremendous self-awareness and feel for what he is doing on the mound. He is not merely a pitcher whose natural ability permits him to overpower opponents. The 29-year-old also understands his craft well enough that he is able to make adjustments.
Three examples have been most noteworthy this year. First, there was a mechanical glitch that was leading to imprecise command during the first month of the season. Beckett worked tirelessly to identify the cause of his struggles. It was the pitcher who found a mechanical cause to his poor start.
“He himself, Josh, made an adjustment with his hands,” said Farrell. “If you go back and watch the video of his three starts, he had a much more pronounced hand pump of his delivery that caused variability in his body movements. In a bullpen session in Tampa, he brought forth the thought of keeping his hands more stable and more in position without the amount of movement he was creating at the time.”
It took Beckett a couple of starts to implement the change and gain comfort with his revised delivery. He got shelled in Tampa following that bullpen session, but still had the awareness to realize that the adjustment would pay off.
Farrell identified a start against the Mariners, three outings later, as the moment when Beckett’s new mechanics took hold. That game, in which he allowed two earned runs on four hits in seven innings, immediately preceded the pitcher’s current run of piled-up scoreless outings.
Beckett has also embraced tweaks to his arsenal that have made him even more uncomfortable for opposing hitters to face. Late in the 2007 season, around August, he added a cutter. This year, he has shown greater confidence in that pitch than ever, and has used it as a weapon since May.
More noteworthy has been the emergence of a devastating two-seam fastball. For much of this year, it has resembled the sinking, cutting pitch that served as the hallmark for Greg Maddux’ excellence over decades. Beckett has been throwing the pitch to both sides of the plate, against both left- and right-handed batters.
“It’s a pitch that feels good. It’s a pitch he has good command of and he’s getting the intended result,” said Farrell. “The thing he’s become really aware of, understanding of, is that at 94-96 miles per hour, a two- and four-seam fastball are drastically different pitches to the hitter. It’s given him a very distinct weapon.”
Beckett will paralyze lefties by throwing it at their belt buckles, only to have the two-seam fastball sweep back over the inside corner. Or he will employ it against righties, who will react late to the break of the sinking pitch and roll it over for an easy groundout, helping to explain why Beckett is getting groundouts with the most frequency of his career.
“His two-seamer is running so much that when he throws it away, hitters give up on it because it looks like it’s too far away and it runs back over the plate with velocity, which is a really tough mix,” said Lowell. “But he also can bury it in and basically saw your hands off. It’s almost like two pitches in one.”
Farrell estimates that Beckett threw a roughly 70-30 mix of four- and two-seam fastballs in 2007. This year, the pitching coach suggested, Beckett’s increased comfort with the pitch has led him to throw the two-seamer with roughly the same frequency as his four-seamer.
The result, of course, has been misery for opposing hitters, who have just a .196 average against Beckett over his last 15 starts. But the impact of that pitch goes further.
As Beckett continues to round out his game, to become a more complete pitcher, he is solidifying his status as one of the game’s best. A pitcher who arrived on the big-league scene with all the subtlety of a wrecking ball is proving that the lofty and even absurd comparisons that greeted him were not entirely off base. His status among the game’s elite has been cemented over multiple seasons.
In the process, Beckett has created for his team a sense of security. The team knows when it is his day to pitch. On days when Beckett prepares to take the hill, the feeling is simply different.
“He’s ready to pitch on his day time and time again. I think that’s how you describe pitchers that you view as great and dominating. That’s what they do,” said Lowell. “When he came up, I think there was almost unrealistic hype, being from Texas, big strong righty. All of a sudden, it’s Roger Clemens and Nolan Ryan. (But) I’d take my chances with those other two on the mound if we had Josh. That’s basically how good he is.”