Anatomy of a player: Josh Beckett

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Josh Beckett’s delivery. (Icon/SMI)

Josh Beckett has become one of the premier postseason pitchers in the big leagues. After winning a ring with the Marlins, he was traded to the Red Sox and was on a Series winner again last year. Expectations were high for him this year, but some niggling injuries and bouts of ineffectiveness have caused his ERA to balloon to 4.34, more than a run higher than it was last year. What might be causing Beckett’s problems and what can the data tell us about Beckett’s most recent injury?

First, while Beckett’s ERA is significantly higher this year, that number is deceiving. If we look deeper at his peripherals, we see that he is pitching very similarly to last year. Beckett’s strikeouts per game and walks per game are almost identical to 2007 and he is giving up only slightly more home runs per fly ball. Because of that, his FIP is basically the same as last year.

His line drive percentage, his infield fly rate and his ground ball percent are down. He is pitching better than his ERA suggests, but not quite what like last year. Obviously, a lot has been written about Beckett and I don’t have much to add about his mechanics and Mike Fast did a great job of profiling Beckett and John Walsh showed just how good Beckett’s curveball was. I want to focus on Beckett this year and, specifically, his last start.

Beckett’s stuff

Beckett is mostly a fastball/curveball pitcher, but he will mix in a few other pitches. Here is his movement chart.

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Besides those two pitches, Beckett throws a sinker that bores in to right-handed batters more than it sinks and a cutter that basically has no horizontal movement. Sometimes people call that cutter a slider, but this year Beckett is average 93 mph with that pitch, so it definitely is a cutter, not a hard slider. Regular readers might notice that when I profiled Gavin Floyd and Pedro Martinez I wasn’t in love with their sliders that offered little movement. While Beckett doesn’t use his cutter very often, and reports are he doesn’t control the pitch well, it has the potential to be a plus pitch because of the sheer speed of the pitch. If a pitcher throws a ball with little horizontal movement at 85 mph, that is quite different from throwing it 93 mph. Beckett also throws a straight change to left-handed batters, but this pitch has less than a six mph differential from his fastball, so it isn’t really a quality pitch now.

Similarly to Ben Sheets, Beckett makes his living with his four-seam fastball and curveball. You may have heard many announcers say that starters can’t get by with just two pitches, but that simply isn’t the case, especially when both main pitches are plus-plus pitches and when they mesh together as well as these two pitchers’ fastballs and curveballs do. The danger when you rely on two pitches so heavily is that if something happens to one, the pitcher is in trouble.

Beckett’s wear pattern

To see how Josh Beckett has held up this year, we can look at his wear pattern. A wear pattern is a plot of the speed and movement of a certain pitch by a pitcher as the year goes on. Here is Beckett’s wear pattern for his fastball.

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The black dots are the speed of the pitch averaged for each game with the error bars representing the spread in the data for that game. The velocity corresponds to the left axis in mph and the red and blue dots are the movement of the pitch and correspond to the axis on the right comparing that pitch to a ball thrown without spin.

The x axis is the date represented by the total day of the year. So the 31st of March would be day 90 on this plot and so on. By looking at his game log you can get a better idea of how this matches up. You can see how consistent Beckett has been this year with his fastball, especially his fastball speed, which has hovered around 95 for the entire year. His movement with his fastball has stayed mostly steady with a small fluctuation at the beginning of the year in his horizontal movement.

Notice, though, the huge spike in vertical movement during his last start before going on the DL with his elbow injury. Often when a pitcher is hurt his arm angle will be altered and his horizontal and vertical movement will be changed from their norms and usual the velocity will decrease. Here it doesn’t look like Beckett’s velocity suffered and his horizontal movement has stayed where it normally is but his vertical movement has shot through the roof.

So what is going on here? Well because the injury is elbow related it appears that Beckett’s release point probably wasn’t altered and that kept his speed relatively similar but the elbow probably caused him to put radically different rotation on the ball and the result was the wild vertical movement. For those of you who are wondering about the validity of the data here notice that this start was at home and no other home start even looks close to this. In fact, you can see an even more pronounced effect looking at his curveball.

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Beckett’s curve has not been nearly as consistent as his fastball this year. Until recently he has struggled to keep the regular bite on his curveball having it go from more 12-6 to 11-5 to a sluve to just plain crappy.

In the last month, things appeared to be better. His ERA was lower in that period, but his last start was a huge issue. Here we see an even larger vertical increase than we saw with Beckett’s fastball. If he was just throwing heaters, and not hurting his arm, he could get away with that, but if your curveball has the same vertical drop as a ball thrown without spin you have problems.

Conclusions

After getting a clean bill of health from Dr. James Andrews, it appears that the Red Sox will start Beckett against the Rangers some time this weekend. Be wary, though, because as our friends at Rotoworld point out, negative tests don’t mean that Beckett is in the clear. He should be monitored closely, and I suspect that the Red Sox brass will be hanging on every pitch he throws when he comes back.

If you are interested in doing some back seat monitoring check out MLB’s Gameday and see what is happening to Beckett’s pitches and his curveball in particular. If that pitch has 3-6 inches of vertical drop, I would consider that a good sign. Anything less and he might not be out of the woods as far as this injury goes.

I do want to point out that Gameday uses uncorrected PITCHf/x data and that Fenway is one of the poorer camera systems around. That system is notoriously slow in particular, so if it has his fastball listed at 92-93 mph that probably is right about where he should be, so don’t fret if it doesn’t show his regular 95+ mph heat.

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