Josh Beckett hasn’t looked the same this season. After an off-season as public enemy No. 1 to Red Sox fans, Beckett could have benefited from a strong start this year. Unfortunately for the 31-year-old, he had a disastrous season debut — one in which he allowed five home runs in just 4.2 innings.
Since then, though, Beckett has been pretty effective. While it’s tough to draw conclusions from small samples, Beckett might be using a new approach on the mound. And if his past two starts are any indication, that approach is working.
Beckett appears to be throwing his cutter more often this season. While is usage is only slightly up (20.1% last season, to 23.3% this year), Beckett hasn’t been throwing his fastball as much. Depending on which tool you look at, Beckett may actually be throwing his cutter more often than his fastball.
It’s actually a bit puzzling why Beckett would choose to throw his fastball less often. It rated as his best pitch last season and produced a 15.6 pitch value. That wasn’t all volume either, as his wFB/C of 1.03 rated second to his 1.76 change-up. So why the change?
While we can’t be certain, there are some factors that could explain Beckett’s reliance on his cutter. Beckett’s fastball velocity has been down thus far: He’s only averaging 91.5 mph this season — compared to 93.0 mph last year. Beckett could be compensating for that lack of velocity by throwing more cutters. Early season velocity is typically lower than usual — and Beckett was dealing with a thumb injury during the spring — so this could just be a small-sample blip.
That’s not to say he hasn’t been effective, and Beckett might want to continue using his cutter. According to Joe Lefkowitz’s pitch f/x site, Beckett has primarily used the cutter to neutralize right-handed batters. In Beckett’s first start, he threw his cutter 20 times, which resulted in four swinging strikes. Beckett mixed his pitches a bit better in his second start, and he only managed one swinging strike on his cutter — though he had a much better game.
Last night, Beckett’s cutter really became a weapon. Relying on mostly a four-seam fastball and the cutter, Beckett held the Texas Rangers to three runs over seven innings while walking just one batter. It wasn’t a phenomenal performance, but his cutter looked very good. Beckett threw 31 cutters last night, which resulted in eight swinging strikes. That was good for a 25.8% swinging-strike rate. It also has been encouraging to see Beckett’s velocity slowly creep up after each of his starts. Last night, his average fastball was much closer to 92 mph. That’s not a huge change, but it could be a sign that he’ll regain some of his velocity as the season moves on.
All told, Beckett’s cutter is producing more whiffs so far than any pitch, other than his change-up. His cutter has also produced the highest ground-ball rate among all his pitches. While his terrible season debut marred his early results, Beckett has been effective his last two times out. And that could at least partly be a result of his increased reliance on the cutter.
Beckett no longer has the velocity to succeed as a true power pitcher. But to remain effective, he has begun to rely on another pitch — one in which he seems to be gaining confidence. By using his cutter more frequently this year, Beckett will prove that his first start in 2012 was an anomaly.
Chris is a blogger for CBSSports.com. He has also contributed to Sports on Earth, the 2013 Hard Ball Times Baseball Annual, ESPN, FanGraphs and RotoGraphs. He tries to be funny on twitter @Chris_Cwik.