>History and Josh Beckett are Totally Cool with Each Other, Actually

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Yesterday, Craig Calcaterra pointed to a story by the Boston Herald’s John Tomase in which he claimed that pitchers who have seasons like Josh Beckett‘s 2010 historically have had a really difficult time coming back:

So what are we talking about? Thanks to the magic of baseball-reference.com, it was easy to sort for pitchers in their 30s who posted ERAs above 5.75 while pitching at least 125 innings.
The search returned 69 such seasons by 66 different pitchers….
Of those 66 pitchers, only three managed to regain something even remotely approximating their form, at least as starters.

Here’s that list. And he’s right, it sure does look ugly. But while Tomase himself notes that these results “have no bearing on whether Beckett will bounce back in 2011,” he does say that they “should at least give Red Sox fans pause,” and that “the game’s entire history is working against him.” But should it, and is it?

Well, no. There are several problems with looking at the issue this way. The most obvious one is that ERA doesn’t do a great job of measuring how well a pitcher actually pitched — it measures the pitcher plus the fielders plus luck and some other things.  Beckett’s FIP and xFIP were 4.54 and 4.01, respectively, suggesting not an “ace” or “rotation anchor,” but at least a very useful starting pitcher.  But I’m not really going to go there, because if you understand xFIP, you already know Tomase is wrong, and if you don’t, you’re probably not going to start now (but you should watch this video).

Even assuming plain old unadjusted ERA is the way to go, though, Tomase went about it all wrong.  His cutoffs were 125 IP, 5.75 ERA, and age 30-39; Beckett had a 5.78 ERA, 127.2 IP and was 30 years old. By creating a set with lower limits at almost exactly Beckett’s numbers and with no upper limit, you’re capturing only a few who are Beckett’s age, almost none who were as good as Beckett and many who were much, much worse and/or much, much older.  What happened to Jack Morris at age 39, David Cone at 38 and Dave Stewart at 38 — and those three guys are actually mentioned in Tomase’s article — has absolutely no bearing at all on what’s going to happen to Beckett at age 31, even if their previous seasons’ numbers were superficially similar.  Similarly, Hap Collard putting up a 6.80 ERA for the 1930 Philadelphia Phillies, in his only career season of over six innings, isn’t going to tell you much about a two-time All-Star who put up a 5.78 ERA in his tenth season in 2010. 

So let’s try something that catches players on either side of Beckett, not just above him; that caps the upper reaches somewhere so we’re not getting people who were much worse than he was; and that actually captures players who were around his age, not 37 or 39.  How about this?

ERA: between 5.50 and 6.00
Innings: between 100 and 200 (my reason for capping the innings, frankly, is that if you put up an ERA that bad over 200+ innings you were probably pitching in Coors Field in 1999 or 2000 and weren’t actually all that bad)
Age: between 29 and 32

That gives us this list. There are 90 names there; a bigger list than Tomase’s (the lower ERA & IP requirements balance out the smaller age range) and an obviously more relevant one. I’m not going to go through all 90 names, but let’s just take a sampling of the players who, like Beckett, had established solid careers for themselves prior to the ugly season:

Oral Hildebrand: a semi-star early in the decade, Hildebrand was 31 in 1938 and put up a 5.69 ERA in 163 innings for the 97-loss St. Louis Browns.  His defense couldn’t have helped; every pitcher who threw 30 or more innings had a five-plus ERA, and Oral’s was actually better than the team’s collective 5.80. He went to the Yankees the next year — arguably the greatest single-season team ever assembled — and put up an excellent 3.06 ERA in 127 innings.

Mark Redman: this is the year where he became the most bewildering All-Star ever, ending with a 5.71 ERA in 167 innings in 2006 for the Royals. He was pretty much done as a useful pitcher after that, but he’d really only had a few decent years before that, and was always hanging on a pretty thin thread, with less than 6 K/9 coming in (that dropped all the way to 4.1 K/9 in his disaster season).  Certainly was never of Beckett’s caliber, and he was two years older when it all fell apart.

Odalis Perez: here’s one that might “give Red Sox fans pause.”  Perez actually had three really solid years as a starter for the Dodgers from 2002-04.  But his qualifying season comes three years after that one, with a 5.57 in 137 innings in 2007 actually an improvement over his 6.20 ERA in 2006.  Perez had a much better ERA year in 2008 — 4.34 in 160 innings — but that’s the last we’ve seen of him.  There was a dramatic drop in strikeout rate and rise in walk rate between his 2002-04 and the qualifying ’07.

Ted Lilly: had a year pretty similar to Beckett’s ’10 in ’05, putting up a 5.57 ERA in 126 innings, at age 29. He was pretty good in the three years before that, and he’s been even better in the five years since.

Kenny Rogers: 1997, Yankees, put up a 5.65 ERA in 145 innings, age 32.  He was lights out the next year for Oakland (16-8, 3.17 ERA, 143 ERA+) and lasted another ten years after that one; sometimes great, sometimes kind of bad, mostly pretty good.

So you get the idea. Most of the guys on that list were just bad pitchers to begin with, who for whatever reason were given more innings than they ever should have been.  Some, like Redman and Perez, were pretty decent pitchers who never pitched very well again, and others, like Lilly and Rogers, were good pitchers who were just fine.  Beckett’s history seems to compare best with the latter group (and I’d say he’s been better than that).

More to the point (and this gets back to the FIP stuff, but without using FIP), his peripherals don’t give any real cause for worry.  His strikeout rate last year of 8.18 per nine innings was low for him, but well within a reasonable range of his 8.51 career average.  His walks were up a bit — 3.17, career 2.77 — but again, nothing worth getting all worked up over.  His average fastball was down less than a mile an hour (94.3 to 93.5), but that fluctuates, too (it was 93.5 back in 2005 as well).  Everything is pretty close to where it’s always been, and there’s no reason Beckett can’t snap back to normal levels (or better) for 2011.  The guys up there whose careers did kind of fall apart all had bigger drops than Beckett in their peripheral numbers.

The one slightly worrying thing with Beckett (aside from health), as it’s always been, is giving up the home run.  He’s had intermittent problems with that since arriving in Boston, giving up a staggering 36 of them in 2006. He then gave up only 35 total over the next two years, but then jumped back up to 25 in 2009, and was already at 20 in just those 127 innings in 2010. To some degree this is random fluctuation (this is what xFIP reflects), but another part of it is just leaving the ball up and getting hit hard. That’s the one thing to keep an eye on with Beckett. But if everything else goes the way it should, it’s the difference between a great pitcher and an average one, not the difference between below-average and out of baseball.

So history, if anything, is on Beckett’s side. It’s that high fastball he’s got to watch out for.

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