Josh Beckett and DIPS Theory

Last year, Josh Beckett posted a 5.78 ERA in 21 starts, and his struggles were one of the main reasons the Red Sox missed the playoffs. This year, Josh Beckett has a 1.86 ERA in 14 starts, and his dominance is one of the reasons that the Red Sox have the best record in the American League. A look beyond ERA, however, shows that Beckett is the poster boy for why metrics like xFIP were created in the first place.

Last year, Beckett had an xFIP of 3.86, 8% below league average. This year, Beckett is posting a 3.69 xFIP, 8% below the league average. In fact, his K/BB ratio is almost exactly identical (2.58 last year, 2.63 this year) to what it was a year ago. His ERA has been slashed by over four runs thanks to huge reductions in two factors that are counted in xFIP – BABIP and HR/FB.

Last year, Beckett had the third worst BABIP (.338) of any starter who threw at least 100 innings. Only Brandon Morrow and James Shields were worse, and Aaron Harang posted the same mark over in the National League. In addition, Beckett posted the fourth worst HR/FB rate in the majors, behind only Jorge de la Rosa (who pitched in Colorado), Manny Parra, and Kevin Correia. Beckett gave up a lot of hits and a lot of home runs, and that’s a lethal combination for a pitcher’s ERA, even if he’s not walking guys and racking up a decent amount of strikeouts.

This year, Beckett has the lowest BABIP (.217) of any starter in baseball, and his 3.9% HR/FB rate is the fifth lowest of any qualified starter. He’s regressed right past the mean, and now his performance in 2011 is as unsustainble as his 2010 performance was, just in the other direction this time. Just like Beckett was a great pick to improve upon his struggles last year, he’s a good bet to regress in the second half of this year.

I know it’s tempting to look at guys who have both high BABIPs and HR/FB rates simultaneously and assume that they must be doing something wrong that allows hitters to tee off on them with regularity. Last year, we had this same conversation about Dan Haren after the Diamondbacks got tired of a “too hittable” pitcher and shipped him to the Angels. At the time of the trade, Haren had a 3.19 xFIP, but his ERA was 4.60 thanks to a .336 BABIP and a 13.9% HR/FB rate. Upon arriving in Anaheim, those numbers immediately dropped, and have stayed below the league averages ever since.

Beckett (and Haren, and James Shields, and many of the other names on the list of guys we noted who were hit hard last year) are seeing dramatically different results this year than they did last year. In a few cases, they are pitching better, though the improvements aren’t anywhere close to the same scale as ERA would suggest. Beckett, though, looks to be almost exactly the same pitcher as he was a year ago, just now he’s on the other side of the results fence.

If you look at Beckett’s 2010-2011 data as one complete season, as he’s started 35 games since the beginning of last year, his line for that “season” has him putting up a .292 BABIP and a 9.8% HR/FB rate, almost exactly average in both categories. For his career, Beckett has right around average marks in both categories.

Besides the sequencing, there’s nothing all that weird about the last 35 starts of Josh Beckett’s career. He had a run of bad luck and a run of good luck, but they’ve nearly canceled each other out, and over the course of 220 innings, his line looks to be pretty close to what you’d expect given his underlying walk rate, strikeout rate, and batted ball stats.

Josh Beckett was never terrible, and he’s not amazing now. More than anything else, he’s an example of why ERA isn’t a good tool for projecting future pitching performances.





Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

83 Comments
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Marc Normandin
11 years ago

While it’s true he was unlucky at times last year (and has been luckier this year), the fact that Beckett’s back isn’t bothering him has been a huge plus. Last year, his back kept him from commanding his curveball well, forcing him to rely on his fastball more. The curve is his best pitch, and sometimes his performance will live and die with it. He was, in fact, “hittable” during certain starts last year because of this — even bad hitters can do something when they know a fastball is coming, especially when they fastball isn’t spectacular.

The last time he struggled like he did in 2010 was in 2006 with the Red Sox, when his curveball also was nowhere near as effective, thanks to the blister issues.

Marc Normandin
11 years ago
Reply to  Dave Cameron

It’s how effective it has been that’s the major difference. Depended on the day of the year. It wasn’t much fun trying to figure out which Beckett was showing up to the park that day, but you could usually tell early on based on his curve command.

Jack Nugent
11 years ago
Reply to  Dave Cameron

This may not be totally conclusive, but FWIW– Beckett’s CB/C last year (-0.54) was as bad as it’s been since 2004, a season in which he threw just 156.2 innings. So far this year, Beckett’s CB/C is 1.49, so apparently he’s had some success with it.

Again, this may not close the book on this argument, but seems like it’s worth considering.

Jack Nugent
11 years ago
Reply to  Dave Cameron

Also, even throw he was throwing even harder last year than he has been in 2011, Beckett’s fastball was by far the least effective it has ever been (wFB/C: -1.23). So that also seems somewhat consistent with Marc’s hypothesis.

joe
11 years ago
Reply to  Dave Cameron

His curve wasn’t doing that great last year, so it took more pitches to put people away. In the deeper two strike counts he’s less likely to throw a fastball.

So he threw less fastballs last year because he wasn’t finishing people off.

Yirmiyahu
11 years ago
Reply to  Dave Cameron

No doubt he’s gotten very lucky so far this year. But last year had more to do with injuries/stuff than with simple bad luck.

All of his offspeed stuff was crap last year. Not only was there less movement, but he couldn’t control anything. The result was that he’d fall behind in the count and throw meatballs down the middle, and get hit hard. This year, his curveball in particular has looked awesome.

I don’t know much about pitch f/x (where that kind of thing would be more quantifiable), but I do see that this year his SwS% is the best of his Sox career, while last year it was the worst.

jwb
11 years ago
Reply to  Dave Cameron

Mike Bielecki was another pitcher like this, albeit at a lower level of overall success. He had chronic back issues and you could tell by his follow through on his first five pitches how his game was going to go.

Ryan
11 years ago
Reply to  Marc Normandin

With a fuller repertoire of pitches, I would think his strikeout rate would go up and even a possible uptick in the walk rate. His K/9 is down and BB/9 is down from 2010.

Buzzy
11 years ago
Reply to  Ryan

His swinging strike % is way up though.

I have posted about this a few days ago on OverTheMonster (see:http://www.overthemonster.com/2011/6/16/2226851/2011-josh-beckett-fluke-or-different-pitcher)

There I point out all of the points Dave does here. On the otherhand one thing that is missed in this discussion that is touched upon there is that Beckett is a completely diffeent pitcher now (and actually in 2010) than he was in 2007. He throws 4 pitches now, and basically only 2 then. I know one should not read too much into 92 innings (or his results in 2010 for that matter) but one can believe that some aspect of results are not random and related to these changes-including equal splits, lots of infield popups, higher swing strike %, lowe LD%…of course we will have to wait and see, and no Beckett cannot continue this, but I don’t think it is complete and total fluke either.

mattinm
11 years ago
Reply to  Ryan

His K% and BB% are up and down, respectively, however. The problem with using per-9 statistics has been described in depth here and around the interwebs. If you are facing more batters per inning (higher BABIP and/or BB-rates), you will naturally strike out more batters per nine, even if you are striking about batters less frequently.

Here’s Beckett’s K% and BB% the past two seasons:

2010:
K% – 20.1%
BB% – 7.80%

2011:
K% – 22.32%
BB% – 8.47%

mattinm
11 years ago
Reply to  Ryan

* up and up

RC
11 years ago
Reply to  Ryan

“With a fuller repertoire of pitches, I would think his strikeout rate would go up and even a possible uptick in the walk rate. His K/9 is down and BB/9 is down from 2010.”

Which is exactly what happened, if you look at stats that are actually DIPS. K/9 and BB/9 are shitty stats.

2011:
k% = 22.3
BB% = 8.4%

2010
K% = 20.1%
BB% = 7.8%

He’s striking out more guys, not less. He’s also walking a tick more guys.

GiantHusker
11 years ago
Reply to  Marc Normandin

As soon as I read this excellent article, I knew someone would come up with “reasons” for the difference.