If the Boston Red Sox are going to contend for the World Series, much of their success is contingent on Josh Beckett’s return to form. After succumbing to a back injury last season, Beckett entered 2011 as one of the question marks on a strong Red Sox team. Throughout the month of April, Beckett has churned out some vintage performances. Now that Beckett appears fully healthy, should we expect his strong performances to continue?
It’s tough to rely on only four starts to fully understand whether Beckett has returned to form, but the early returns look promising. Though Beckett actually had some solid peripherals last season, what really hurt his numbers was trouble with the long ball. This season, Beckett has done a fine job limiting home runs over his first four starts. He’s not going to allow home runs on only 5% of his fly balls all season, but the early returns suggest Beckett isn’t going to suffer from such a severe case of homeritis again either.
One of the major reasons Beckett has been effective this season has been the effectiveness of all his pitches. Last season, none of Beckett’s pitches rated positively according to his pitch-type values. Over his first four starts, each of Beckett’s offerings rate positively. Much of Beckett’s early success is due to the return of his curve. In his breakdown of Beckett’s start against the New York Yankees, Joe Pawlikowski highlighted Beckett’s success with the curve. After netting -2.1 runs from it last season, the curve has actually been Beckett’s best pitch this season, rating 3.6 runs above average. Over his career, the curve has been one of Beckett’s best pitches, so his early success with the pitch is promising.
The reason Beckett has been able to bury hitters with his curve most likely has to do with his aggressive approach early in the count. Last season, Beckett’s first-pitch strike percentage dropped to 58.4% (his career average is 61.7%). An early return to his career average has enabled Beckett to get ahead of hitters more often this season, contributing to his return to form.
Beckett’s contact rates have also been strong this season. After posting a career-low SwStr% and a career-high Contact% last season, Beckett has improved in both of those categories this season. His SwStr% has rebounded to his 2007-2009 rates, while his Contact% is the lowest it’s been with the Red Sox. While his Contact% will likely rise as the season continues, his gains in SwStr% are another sign that the Beckett of old has returned.
Yes, it’s only been four starts, and there are some signs that point to regression (his HR/FB rate, BABIP, and LOB%), but Beckett’s early season success is more reminiscent of the 2007-2009 Beckett than the 2010 version. When compared to the rest of his career, 2010 looks like it will be the outlier and not the start of Beckett’s decline. The Red Sox have already experienced their fair share of issues this season, but Beckett’s early season performance is one less thing the Red Sox have to worry about going forward. He may not return to Cy Young form, but as Beckett has already shown this season, 2010 appears to be an aberration.
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.