Are Josh Beckett and John Lackey legitimate bounce-back candidates in 2011?
Apparently $30 million doesn't go as far as it used to. Just ask the Boston Red Sox. In 2010, the team paid a combined $30 million to Josh Beckett and John Lackey to head up a starting rotation that looked like one of the league's best on paper. And let's just say the return on that investment wasn't good.
Beckett was limited to just 21 starts due to back problems, and he pitched poorly even when he did take the mound. In those 21 outings, he won just six games and posted a bloated 5.78 ERA and 1.54 WHIP. Bad, right? Well, to provide a little perspective, consider that Beckett's horrendous season ranked him 461st among pitchers, according to the ESPN Player Rater. That means players like Henry Villar, Pedro Viola and Tobi Stoner all technically had more fantasy value than Beckett in 2010. Who? Exactly.
Needless to say, Beckett has a long, long road ahead of him to get back to fantasy relevance.
The aforementioned back injury sidelined him for two months. It's hard to know for certain, but it's possible -- and probably even likely -- that he wasn't 100 percent healthy even when he did pitch. After all, back ailments have a tendency to linger. Thus, when we look at Beckett's 2010 season, we have to remember that he was more than likely pitching hurt for much of it. With that in mind, let's dive deeper into Beckett's 2010 campaign.
For one thing, Beckett threw his fastball and curveball less than he did in his previous five seasons, and he relied on his cutter and changeup more, according to Fangraphs.com.
The fact that he relied so much on his cutter and backed off his fastball/curve approach may have contributed to his struggles. However, let's not put all the blame on Beckett's newfound fondness for his cutter. Fangraphs.com lets us look at every pitch type Beckett threw last year and, based on the league average, see how many runs were "saved" by using that pitch. In other words, we can measure the effectiveness of each pitch type.
Note: Since Beckett obviously didn't throw each type of pitch equally, the below data measures the numbers of runs saved per 100 pitches thrown: Fastball: -1.23, Cutter: -0.06, Curve: -0.54, Changeup: -0.56
All four pitches graded below average last season, but Beckett's fastball was the worst (and the cutter was actually the most effective pitch in his arsenal). To compare, from 2007-09, Beckett's fastball saved 0.78 runs above average per 100 pitches. Part of the problem may have been that the right-hander's average fastball velocity dipped to 93.5 mph last year after sitting at 94.3 mph the previous two seasons. However, if back issues hindered his ability to throw his secondary offerings (namely his curve), it makes sense that hitters would have been able to sit on his fastball more consistently last season. So even though Beckett altered his repertoire in 2010, his pitches just weren't as effective as in the past, likely because he wasn't fully healthy. It's also worth noting that hitters made contact on 81.6 percent of the pitches they swung at last season, the highest percentage in his nine-year career, another indication that things weren't right with the veteran right-hander.
All told, maybe it's not fair to blame all of Beckett's ineffectiveness on his back issues, and maybe his pitch selection last year wasn't as injury-driven as we're making it out to be, but odds are it played a significant part.
Skeptics will point out that Beckett's strikeout and walk rates both went in the wrong directions last season. His 8.2 K/9 rate last year was his lowest mark in the last four seasons, and his 3.2 BB/9 rate was also his worst mark in the past four years. Still, last year's 2.6 strikeout-to-walk ratio was very good and isn't that far off from his career average (3.1 K/BB). Even though he was likely pitching hurt, that K/BB ratio compared favorably with elite fantasy hurlers like CC Sabathia (2.66) and Jon Lester (2.71). That Beckett's strikeout and walk rates stayed so strong amid last season's adversity is an encouraging sign -- not a reason for concern.
There are also indications that Beckett -- no matter how bad he was -- was unlucky last season. His .338 batting average against on balls in play was 47 points higher than his career average, and his 65 percent strand rate was the worst mark of his career. His 14.2 percent home run-to-fly ball rate also would have been the highest mark in baseball had he qualified. We can't simply write all of this off as bad luck, but Beckett should experience better fortune in all three areas in 2011 if he's healthy.
If Beckett was in his mid- or late-30s, it would be reasonable to expect erosion in his skill set. But he's not. He's only 30 years old, so it's not like he's entering the "decline" period of his career. Sure, back issues could crop up again in 2011, but the hope is that an offseason of rest will help get him back on the same track he was on from 2007-09, when he averaged 16 wins, 188 strikeouts, a 3.72 ERA and 1.17 WHIP.
Lackey wasn't nearly as bad as Beckett last season, and he can't blame his struggles on injury issues. He made 33 starts and won 14 games -- his highest total since winning 19 games with the Los Angeles Angels in 2007 -- but his 4.40 ERA was his worst since 2004, and his 1.42 WHIP was his worst since 2003. Combine that with his lowest strikeout rate since 2004 and lowest walk rate since 2005, and it's evident that Lackey's first season in Boston was a disappointment, to say the least.
Not all the news was bad, however. Lackey induced more ground balls (45.6 percent) last season than any year in his career, and his 18.4 line-drive percentage was his best mark since 2006. Plus, Lackey's second-half performance provides some optimism for the future. Here's a look at the splits:
Pre-break: 4.78 ERA, 1.60 WHIP, 5.4 K/9, 3.6 BB/9, .298 BAA
Post-break: 3.97 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, 7.8 K/9, 2.3 BB/9, .253 BAA
Those second-half numbers virtually mirror the digits he posted with the Angels the last two seasons (3.79 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 7.1 K/9, 2.3 BB/9, .263 BAA in 51 combined starts between 2008 and 2009). This gives us hope that Lackey simply had one bad half, and that the skill set the Red Sox thought they were acquiring when they handed him a five-year, $82.5 million contract last offseason is still there. We often assume that a veteran pitcher like Lackey, who has pitched in the American League his entire career, won't struggle upon moving to the big stage in Boston or New York, but it's still possible that the right-hander needed an adjustment period last season.
Both Beckett and Lackey were being drafted as top-25 pitchers heading into 2010, and according to ESPN's average draft position data, they're currently being drafted 41st and 58th, respectively. If you're the type of fantasy owner who likes to wait on pitching and tries to find value in the later rounds, Beckett and Lackey both fit the mold as bounce-back candidates.
Yes, my friends, if there was ever a buying opportunity for these two right-handers, this is it.