In Josh Beckett‘s first start this year, he went five innings, allowed three runs, threw 106 pitches, struck out four while walking four, and gave up 11 flyballs–mercifully, none of those ended up in the stands. The line score paints a prettier picture than the actual start, though, as Beckett pitched much worse than a guy who was going to give up just the three runs, to the point where getting five innings out of him that night was a gift–especially when you consider he was facing the Cleveland Indians, a team that isn’t scaring anyone with their lineup.
In Beckett’s second start of the season, facing the vaunted New York Yankees’ lineup, he went eight innings, allowed no runs–earned or otherwise–struck out 10, walked just the one batter, induced 11 grounders against four flyballs, and gave up just a pair of hits. He threw just 103 pitches total over those eight innings, and looked nothing like the inefficient hurler who took the mound less than a week prior on the road.
That might be because he wasn’t the same guy out there. The pitcher who faced off against Cleveland had eight swinging strikes the entire outing, and averaged 92.2 mph on his four-seamer and 91.9 mph on his two-seamer. The one on the mound against the Bombers averaged 93.5 mph on his four-seamer and relied on his two-seamer much less–oddly enough, even with less emphasis on the sinking two-seamer, Beckett managed to induce far more grounders. He induced eight swinging strikes again, but, percentage wise, he was much improved–while all of his pitches were below the league average whiff rate in start one, they were all above–well above in some cases–the average last night, resulting in 66 percent total strikes versus 61 percent against the Indians.
Far more important than the small sample musings above is Beckett’s location for his pitches. He couldn’t locate his cutter against the Indians the few times he used it, his four-seamer wasn’t an effective weapon for picking up strikes–swinging or otherwise–and his curve (it remains his top pitch) wasn’t utilized near often enough.
All of those issues were ironed out (at least, for one night anyway) against New York–he threw his four-seamer for a strike almost 80 percent of the time (a huge number, considering it was his primary offering for the evening), his curve was used the second-most, and his changeup, used almost exclusively against left-handed hitters again, did what it was meant to do.
Now, I’m not trying to say that Beckett is fixed because of one night, or anything as rash as that. The greater point here is that Beckett has the ability to be both infuriatingly inefficient and dominating, and it’s hard to tell which one it is going to be from start to start. If his back can keep out of the way for most of the season, then I expect more of the latter than the former, but if he has nights where his back is bugging him and his command and velocity are even a little off, he is going to have trouble. A bad back means fewer benders, and the fewer of those he throws, the less effective he will be.
Everything Beckett can be–both good and bad–comes from his command and his curve. He is nigh unbeatable, and gives the Red Sox three pitchers who can take any offense in the majors, when his curve is on and he can put the ball where he wants to. If he’s not feeling it, then he becomes susceptible to someone as normally ineffectual as the Indians–it’s a thin line, but anyone who has watched enough Beckett over the years is aware of the differences.
Because of this, Beckett is one of the real keys to the season. He is the difference being Boston having a staff with a few average arms backing up the superior Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz, and a team that can throw out three arms that can take down any offense in a series, regular season or otherwise. Either is useful, but it’s easy to see which path is preferable–here is hoping we see a whole lot of Beckett curveballs in 2011.