The following article is part of Jay Jaffe’s ongoing look at the candidates on the BBWAA 2020 Hall of Fame ballot. For a detailed introduction to this year’s ballot, and other candidates in the series, use the tool above; an introduction to JAWS can be found here. For a tentative schedule and a chance to fill out a Hall of Fame ballot for our crowdsourcing project, see here. All WAR figures refer to the Baseball-Reference version unless otherwise indicated.
Given their propensity for injuries, even the best pitchers will break your hearts. The impact of so many hard throws takes its toll on the body, and no matter how talented, not every pitcher can survive long enough to build a resumé worthy of Hall of Fame consideration. In the latest installment of my completest series, two big righties who could dial it up to the high 90s with their fastballs teamed up at the outset of their careers to help the Marlins capture an unlikely championship, and while both excelled further, to the point of making multiple All-Star teams, the ups and downs of the job took their toll, sidelining both by their mid-30s.
|Player||Career WAR||Peak WAR||JAWS||W-L||IP||SO||ERA||ERA+|
At his best, when healthy, Josh Beckett was an All-Star, a Cy Young contender, and a championship-caliber pitcher who offset his high-90s heat with a filthy, knee-buckling curve. Indeed, he played a vital role on two World Series winners, first the upstart 2003 Marlins and then the ’07 Red Sox. Alas, injuries — particularly recurrent blisters and shoulder woes — limited him to just four seasons of at least 30 starts, and prevented him from reaching the heights expected of him. The grind of pitching was just too much for his body to stay in working order for two years in a row, and sometimes even for a full season; he developed a notable tendency to excel in odd-numbered years while struggling in even-numbered ones. But when he was good, he was very, very good.
Born in Spring, Texas, a suburb of Houston, on May 15, 1980, Beckett grew up idolizing Texas fireballers Nolan Ryan and Roger Clemens and dreaming of following in their footsteps. He was already throwing in the high 80s by the time he got to high school, and reached the mid-90s thanks to a growth spurt following his freshman year. As a sophomore he threw three no-hitters and drew comparisons to another Texan, Kerry Wood. By his junior year, he was throwing 97 mph and drawing national attention, going 13-2 with a 0.39 ERA and 178 strikeouts against just 31 hits and 20 walks in 89 innings. He was voted the Texas 5-A High School Player of the Year, and recognized by Baseball America as the top high school player in the country. He was similarly brilliant as a senior, named the High School Pitcher of the Year by USA Today.
By this time 6-foot-5 and 200 pounds, with a fastball that regularly approached 100 mph, Beckett was in contention to be the overall number one pick of the 1999 draft, but the Devil Rays, who owned the top pick, perceived him as arrogant; in one oft-repeated story, he had the temerity to call team owner Vince Naimoli by his first name. The Devil Rays opted to draft Josh Hamilton first, but his drug problems prevented him from ever playing for them. Beckett went second, to the Florida Marlins, and after negotiations dragged on to the brink of his enrolling at Blinn (Texas) Junior College, he “settled” for a four-year, $7 million deal that included a $3.625 million bonus — a package roughly $3 million more than Hamilton received.
Thus Beckett didn’t make his professional debut until 2000, and was further limited to 59.1 innings in the A-level Midwest League due to shoulder inflammation. Nonetheless, he vaulted from 19th to third on Baseball America’s Top 100 Prospects list the following spring. After dominating at Hi-A and Double-A stops (140 IP, 203 SO, 1.54 ERA), he made his major league debut on September 4, 2001, with six innings of one-hit shutout work against the Cubs, plus a double off Jon Lieber. In four starts totaling 24 innings, he struck out 24 and pitched to a 1.50 ERA. He entered the 2002 season atop BA’s prospect list, and in the Marlins’ rotation. The 22-year-old righty held his own, but blisters on his middle finger sent him to the disabled list three times for a total of 75 days, limiting him to 107.2 innings; he finished with a 4.10 ERA, 3.69 FIP, and 0.9 WAR. With a core of young pitching that also included A.J. Burnett, Ryan Dempster, and Brad Penny, the Marlins, who had torn it all down after their 1997 championship, won 79 games.
Named Opening Day starter for 2003, Beckett was cuffed for seven runs by the Phillies before being chased in the third inning. In early May, he landed on the DL with an elbow sprain, costing him eight weeks; shortly after he left the team, manager Jeff Torborg was fired amid a wave of pitcher injuries that also included Burnett’s Tommy John surgery. Seventy-two-year-old Jack McKeon took over as manager, and the team’s fortunes turned, with Beckett contributing from July 1 onward. He finished the year with a 3.04 ERA, 2.94 FIP, and 3.8 WAR in 142 innings, but he was hardly done. The Marlins snagged the NL Wild Card berth, then bumped off the Giants and Cubs in the first two rounds of the playoffs; Beckett’s first two starts were a mixed bag, but with the Marlins down three games to one in the NLCS, he threw a two-hit, 11-strikeout shutout in Game 5, and two days later added four innings of one-hit, one-run relief in Florida’s Game 7 win. In the World Series against the Yankees, he took the loss in Game 3 despite yielding just two runs and striking out 10 in 7.1 innings. Pitching on three days’ rest with a chance to clinch, he threw a five-hit shutout at the Yankees, earning him World Series MVP honors and cementing his reputation as a big game pitcher. In all, he posted a 2.11 ERA with 47 strikeouts in 42.2 innings that fall.
Beckett spent two more years with the Marlins, but blisters and an oblique strain limited him to 55 starts. In his more complete campaign (2005), he went 15-8 with a 3.38 ERA, 3.27 FIP, and 3.6 WAR in 178.2 innings. By this point, he was getting too expensive for the Marlins’ tastes; on November 25, 2005, they traded him, third baseman Mike Lowell, and reliever Guillermo Mota to the Red Sox in a blockbuster that sent shortstop Hanley Ramirez, righty Aníbal Sánchez, and two other players to Florida.
Though he set career highs with 33 starts, 204.2 innings, and 16 wins (against 11 losses), Beckett’s first season in Boston was ugly to the tune of a 5.01 ERA and 5.12 FIP. He had surmounted his blister problems by wearing a Band-Aid on his middle finger between starts, but was unable to throw his curveball in bullpen sessions, compromising his in-game command of the pitch; his 36 homers allowed was the majors’ second highest total. Even so, the Sox signed him to a three-year, $30 million extension. Thanks to improved control, he trimmed his walk rate from 8.5% to 4.9%, and made good with a 3.27 ERA and 194 strikeouts in 200.2 innings; both his 3.08 FIP and 6.5 WAR led all AL pitchers, as did his 20 wins. He made his first All-Star team, lost a close Cy Young race to CC Sabathia, and sparkled in the postseason, with a four-hit shutout of the Angels in the Division Series opener, ALCS MVP honors for two strong starts against the Indians, and a seven-inning, one-run start in the World Series opener against the Rockies, whom the Red Sox swept; in all, he posted a 1.20 ERA and 35-to-2 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 30 postseason innings.
Beckett spent the better part of the next five seasons on a rollercoaster in Boston. He battled a lower back strain and ulnar neuritis in 2008 but helped the Red Sox win 95 games and return to the postseason, though he was hit hard in both the Division Series and ALCS. He made another All-Star team with a strong 2009 (3.86 ERA, 3.63 FIP, 5.0 WAR) in which he made the full complement of 32 starts, but was roughed up by the Angels in the Division Series as the Sox fell again. In the wake of signing a four-year, $68 million extension, his 2010 was dreadful (5.78 ERA and -1.0 WAR in 21 starts) and shortened by lower back woes, but he was back to All-Star form in 2011 — fifth in both ERA (2.89) and WAR (5.8), and fourth in ERA+ (149). That season ended on a particularly sour note; he yielded a 5.40 ERA in his final five starts, with a turn skipped for an ankle sprain. Those struggles loomed large when the Sox lost out on a playoff spot on the final day of the season, and even larger when he was implicated alongside John Lackey and Jon Lester in the fried chicken and beer scandal which was said to exemplify selfishness, poor leadership, and a poor work ethic.
Beckett struggled in 2012 as the injury-bitten Red Sox sank into the AL East basement, but he was granted a reprieve via the late August blockbuster that sent him, Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez, and Nick Punto to the Dodgers for a five-player package. Despite better post-trade results, he finished with a 4.65 ERA and 0.9 WAR, then made just eight starts in 2013 due to thoracic outlet syndrome, for which he underwent surgery in July.
Against all odds, the 34-year-old righty pitched well for the Dodgers in early 2014, posting a 2.88 ERA (well ahead of his 4.33 FIP) and even spinning a no-hitter on May 25 against the Phillies. Even so, left hip problems sidelined him in July, culminating in season-ending surgery to repair a torn labrum. He opted to retire.
By my count, Beckett spent 601 days on the disabled list, the equivalent of about 25% of his active major league career, and was more than twice as valuable in odd-numbered years as even-numbered ones:
He finished with a 7-3, 3.07 ERA postseason record, with 99 strikeouts in 93.2 innings. Among all pitchers in the division play era (1969 onward), only Madison Bumgarner has matched his total of three postseason shutouts.
At 6-foot-4 and 270 pounds, hulking Brad Penny was intimidating, but he was more efficient than he was dominant thanks to his ability to generate groundballs. While he made two All-Star teams and even started once for the NL, biceps, shoulder, and back woes took significant bites out of his career. He became the epitome of the well-traveled journeyman, spending time with 10 different teams from 1998 to 2016, pitching in the majors with six of them, and traveling to Japan in an ill-fated attempt to further his career.
Born on May 24, 1978, in Blackwell, Oklahoma, Penny starred at Broken Arrow High School, where he earned All-State honors and was named Frontier Conference Pitcher of the Year. The Diamondbacks drafted him with the final pick of the fifth round in 1996, two years before the franchise began playing in the NL. He dominated the lower levels of the minors, most notably striking out 207 while walking just 35 in 164 innings in the notoriously hitter-friendly California League in 1998, a performance that pushed him to No. 5 on Baseball America’s Top 100 Prospects list the following spring.
He never made it to Arizona; instead, Penny was traded to the Marlins on July 8, 1999 along with two other players in exchange for closer Matt Mantei, whom the fast-rising Diamondbacks needed for their playoff push. Penny’s stock took a hit due to tendinitis and some scuffling at Double-A, but he made the Marlins out of spring training, and debuted with seven innings of one-run ball against the Rockies on April 7, 2000; his only run allowed was via a solo homer by Mike Lansing, the second batter he faced. The 22-year-old righty pitched 119.2 innings but was roughed up for a 4.81 ERA and missed eight weeks due to a shoulder strain, finishing with 0.5 WAR. He was much better in 2001 (3.69 ERA, 3.39 FIP, and 2.7 WAR in 205 innings), but back to replacement level in an ’02 season shortened by biceps inflammation and blister woes.
As noted above, by this point the Marlins had amassed a rotation full of young arms, even with the loss of Burnett. With Penny rebounding and joined by Beckett, rookie Dontrelle Willis, and the still-under-30 Carl Pavano and Mark Redman, the team shook off a bad start and won a championship. Penny delivered 196.1 innings of slightly above-average work during the regular season (4.13 ERA, 3.92 FIP, 2.9 WAR), struggled in his Division and NLCS starts but pitched well in three relief appearances, and then came up big in the World Series. He allowed just two runs in 5.1 innings in the Marlins’ Game 1 win at Yankee Stadium, then worked seven innings while allowing just two runs (one earned) in Game 5, setting up Beckett’s clinching performance.
Inevitably, the Marlins began to break up the band. Penny pitched well through the first four months of 2004 (3.15 ERA and 2.7 WAR) before being traded to the Dodgers as part of a shocking blockbuster, with first baseman Hee-Seop Choi accompanying him, and catcher Paul Lo Duca, outfielder Juan Encarnacion and reliever Guillermo Mota heading to Florida. The controversy around trading the popular and productive Lo Duca had hardly died down when Penny was shelved by biceps nerve irritation that limited him to just 11.2 innings post-trade. The injury carried into 2005, though the Dodgers nonetheless signed him to a three-year, $25.5 million extension. He pitched reasonably well the rest of the year, then earned an All-Star start in 2006 on the basis of a 10-2, 2.91 ERA first half. It was too good to last; pitching through shoulder soreness and a bulging disk, he was cuffed for a 6.25 ERA in the second half, and demoted to the bullpen as the Dodgers fell to the Mets in the Division Series.
Fully healthy in 2007, Penny set career bests with a 3.03 ERA and 6.0 WAR in 208 innings, making the All-Star team again and finishing a distant third in the Cy Young voting behind unanimous winner Jake Peavy and runner-up Brandon Webb. Shoulder inflammation limited him to 94.2 innings the following year, however, and upon leaving Los Angeles in free agency, he beat quite a path, never working on a multiyear deal again and totaling just 464.2 innings with a 5.02 ERA and -0.3 WAR from age 31 onward.
Penny signed with the Red Sox, but pitched badly enough to be released in late August 2009, but he showed enough signs of life upon being picked up by the Giants that the Cardinals inked him to a $7.5 million deal. Alas, a lat strain limited him to nine starts in 2010, he was lousy while somehow logging 181.2 innings for a 95-win Tigers squad in ’11, and after making exactly one start for the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks in ’12 returned stateside to pitch out of the Giants’ bullpen, though shoulder woes continued to haunt him. He sat out 2013, and spent the next two years trying to find a job, passing through the hands of the Royals, Marlins (for whom he threw 26 innings), White Sox, and Blue Jays before calling it quits in the spring of 2016.
Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.