Breaking Down Beckett

By Andrew Lipsett
As you saw from Evan’s gleeful post, the Red Sox tonight pulled off an absolute blockbuster deal, the kind that can redefine a team. Think Pedro c. 1997, and you get an idea of what today might have meant for the Boston Red Sox; we have acquired a pitcher at the very beginning of what promises to be an exceptional career, and all we had to give up was one top-notch AA pitching prospect, and a highly touted shortstop whose performance had not yet matched his potential. And one other guy, who may or may not be Jesus Delgado. And we also had to take on Mike Lowell. But frankly, all of this merely serves to distract us from the main point:
We have Josh Beckett, and 29 other teams don’t.
Nyah nyah.
So, who is Josh Beckett? What’s he done, what will he do? Is he injury prone? Is he a mirage created by his home park? Or is he just that good?
First, the basics:
Born May 15th, 1980 (Age on Opening Day: 25; Age for majority of 2006 season: 26)
Throws: Right
Drafted: 1st round, Florida Marlins (2nd overall), 1999 draft
MLB Debut: 9/4/2001

Year Age IP GS ERA WHIP K BB HR/9 K/9 K/BB
2001 21 24.0 4 1.50 1.04 24 11 1.12 9.0 2.18
2002 22 107.2 21 4.10 1.27 113 44 1.09 9.45 2.57
2003 23 142.0 23 3.04 1.32 152 56 0.57 9.63 2.71
2004 24 156.2 26 3.79 1.22 152 54 0.92 8.73 2.81
2005 25 178.2 29 3.37 1.18 166 58 0.71 8.36 2.86

A bunch of things jump out. Moving left to right, we have to first take a look at those IP totals. One criticism of Beckett has been his injury history; for a guy who has held ‘ace’ status for several years – despite his young age – Beckett has never thrown more than 200 innings; 2005 was the first time he cracked even 160. Many have interpreted this negatively, but to me, the fact that the vast majority of his injuries have been blister related suggests that these numbers are better taken as a positive sign. Blister injures, for one, aren’t indicative of any kind of long term injury risk. These haven’t been elbow or shoulder issues (though a bout with shoulder tendinitis led the Marlins to shelve him for the final start of 2005). Instead, they’ve been minor injuries – of a type that is self corrective, as blisters harden the hands and fingers – that have also served to limit the strain on his arm. With young pitchers, it’s all about the IP limits; the Marlins have been notorious in recent years for abusing young pitchers, so it’s almost welcome to see that blisters have kept Beckett from putting up a 200+ inning season to this point. There’s no reason to expect those problems to continue, and he’ll be more durable for the rest. Also notable with the IP progression is the upward trend; in each of the three seasons he’s been a full-time major leaguer, his IP totals have risen. There’s no reason to believe this won’t be the case again in 2006.
The same can be said of his WHIP, which has progressed downward every season, the result of similar progressions in his h/9 and bb/9. Now, it’s tough – many say impossible – to put predictive stock in a BABIP. But the declining walk rate is a fantastic indicator of potential, and Beckett’s – already decent – has been on a slow march downward for three years.
While his base K totals have been progressively moving upward, there’s been fluctuation in his K/9, which is somewhat troubling (though not amazingly so; an 8.36 total like the one he put up in 2005 is still quite good, and ranked 9th in the NL in ’05). There was some talk mid-season, especially focused around AJ Burnett, who was being shopped, that the Marlins’ pitching philosophy preached contact over K’s; in addition to being silly, if that were true it would provide some explanation for Beckett’s drop in K/9 between 2003 and 2004. If it’s not true… I can still live happily with a K/9 of 8 or slightly above. It’s also good to see that despite the drop in K/9, his K/BB continues to improve.
The biggest step forward for Beckett comes in his HR/9, which dropped massively between his half-year stint in 2002 and his first full season in 2003, from 1.09 to 0.57. It has fluctuated since, rising to about .9 in 2004 and back down to .7 in 2005, but given his age and stuff, this isn’t any kind of warning flag. If he can keep it at that level, adjusting for league change, he should still remain very effective.
So, looking at base career stats, we’ve clearly gotten an already excellent yet still improving young arm.
Or have we? Another complaint about Beckett has been his home/road splits; Pro Player Stadium is a notorious pitchers park, while Fenway skews toward the hitter in everything but HR.
Beckett over his career has indeed been significantly better at home than on the road, posting a 2.87 ERA with 274 K’s in 269 IP in Miami but a 4.10 ERA with 196 K’s in 211.2 IP as a visitor. I’m tempted to worry about these numbers, but of course many – if not most – players tend to struggle away from their home ballpark, where they have a routine and aren’t on a plane every three days. It’s tough to project away numbers or past success/failure of this type onto a new team; see, for example, David Wells at Fenway. Certainly Pro Player has helped Beckett, but how much is unknown. At some point, one has to trust in the organizational decision-makers (whoever they may be) on this one.
So, bottom line, we’ve landed ourselves at worst a young #2 starter and at best an ace that could carry this team for years. The potential worries are the recurrences of injury, including the shoulder tendinitis that held him from his final 2005 start, a potential decline in K/9, and his home/road splits. The potential benefits… well, those are right there for all to see. And the best part is, he’s only 25, and promises to get even better.
But, of course, Josh Beckett wasn’t the only player to change address today. Also coming to Fenway is Mike Lowell, who for years had been one of the NL’s most consistent bats, as well as an excellent defender. 2005 saw the former – though not the latter – take an absolute dive; while Lowell had posted OPS of .818, .788, .817, .880 and .870 since 2000, in 2005 – at the age of 31 – that number dropped precipitously to .658. Now, normally one would assume at least some reversion to mean for 2006; even if he won’t be as good as 2003 or 2004, he can’t possibly be as bad as he was in 2005. But what is a reasonable plateau to expect? mid .700’s? high .700’s? Is it worth his price tag?
The most important questions for Lowell are, then: what caused his massive drop between 2004 and 2005? Was it injury? Illness (Lowell suffered from cancer several years back, though he has recovered completely)? Sudden decline? Something else, for which ‘sudden decline’ has become something of a code phrase? Also, what are the Sox plans for him? There are, essentially two options: first, keep him around, playing either first or third, with Kevin Youkilis manning the other position, and hope that his numbers rebound; or, spin him elsewhere, possibly Minnesota, for pitching help. My personal guess is that the Sox put his name out there and see what kind of bites they get, and how much of the $16 million, 2 year price tag he comes attached to they wuld have to swallow. If they find a solid deal for him, they take it; if not, he solves the 1B problem and lets us focus on CF.
Finally, we come to the prospects in the deal, Hanley Ramirez and Anibal Sanchez. Henley is probably better known to Sox fans; in addition to getting a September call-up in 2005, he has been the jewel of the farm system for three straight years, a five tool SS with power potential and a very solid glove. Hanley was so highly touted heading into the 2005 season that many were discussing him as a potential center fielder to replace Damon in 2006. Hanley’s disappointing season, however, dampened that hope; coupled with previous disappointing seasons, one has to at least begin to question whether his results will catch up to his tools. I remain convinced that Hanley will explode, quite soon, and that he will become a valuable MLB ballplayer, but the point is that until he does so, he cannot be considered a can’t miss prospect; only a very gifted young player with a very high ceiling.
Sanchez has been in the Sox system as long as Sanchez; both were Latin American free agent signings in 2001. Sanchez has a very live fastball and excellent change, mixing in a curveball that – while not at the level of his other pitches – is still quite strong. Had it not been for a nerve injury in his throwing arm that canceled out his 2003 season, Sanchez might be further along in the system, if not on the MLB level today; nevertheless, he ranked third among Sox pitching prospects behind Jonathan Papelbon and Jon Lester, and in a deal for a pitcher of Beckett’s calibre was certainly expendable.
Finally, a third prospect in the deal is rumored to be low-A reliever Jesus Delgado, who was recently added to the 40-man roster after a head-turning AFL stint this fall. Delgado, 21, has apparently fully recvered from Tommy John surgery, which canceled out his 2003 season. He struggled in both 2004 with Augusta and 2005 with Greenville, but picked up enough interest in the AFL to warrant a spot. Probably not a major loss to the system; he certainly could find himself and become a decent MLB reliever, but then he might not. Nowhere near as high on the prospect charts as several other RP’s in the system, and therefore eminently tradeable.
So, overall, this trade gets high marks across the board. Chances are it’s not over yet; I for one think the Sox will find a taker for Lowell, possibly in a move to the Twins for two or three pitchers, possibly to the Dodgers for the same. It almost doesn’t matter; Beckett is the real prize, and a deal that simply saw Sanchez and Hanley go to Florida for him alone might have been worth it. Like Evan, I’m giddy at the thought of this deal; though Theo’s departure left a bitter taste in my mouth, it’s good to see that there still exist in the front office people smart enough to recognize the amazing value of this trade.
Now the questions become: what to do with Lowell, and can we sign Beckett long term? The answer to the latter is clearly yes, and I expect them to do so before this winter is out. The former… the former will likely make for some interesting discussion before the winter is through.
And we’re just getting warmed up.