Some Skeptical Thoughts on Josh Beckett’s Impending Extension

Julia’s Rants has a piece up today urging Theo et al. to complete an extension with Josh Beckett before the season starts. Yesterday (Tuesday), the Sporting News reported that the Sox were close to a 4 year contract extension with Beckett that mirrored the 16.5 million dollars per season given to John Lackey. It is likely that Beckett will get his extension with Boston. There’s not really any marque free agent pitcher on the market next season other than Beckett. There’s Tim Hudson, Brandon Webb, and Cliff Lee (at least for now), but they all come with injury concerns larger than Beckett’s. In addition to Julia, there’s talk across Red Sox Nation that this is a good deal, and that I should be happy. But, to draw on Malcolm Gladwell, something doesn’t feel right about this one to me–my blink sense is tingling.

Last season, I compared Beckett to Jekyll and Hyde for his weird statistical breakdown–Beckett has very few mediocre outings. He’s either brilliant (most of the time) or absolutely terrible (about 5 outings a year). Were you to cut four starts out of last season, Beckett’s ERA drops almost a full run (from 3.86 to 2.99).

Cumulatively, there’s nothing in his statistics to outright poo-poo a long-term deal or justify 16.5 million a season. Over the past four years, Beckett has compiled a 65 and 34 record (.657 %), 4.05 ERA, and 8.2 k/9. He has 75 quality starts and an ERA+ of 116. Besides the winning percentage, all of these numbers are good–not great. And, if you believe in neutralization, then you might point out that his neutralized record during his four years in Boston would only be 46-40 (instead of the 65-34 he has actually complied). So, while his neutralized ERA is lower, sabermetrics indicate that he has benefited from the Red Sox more than the Red Sox have benefited from him… But I’m not sure that this is what makes me hesitate toward the idea of locking Beckett up for four years. He’ll still, of course, be a Red Sox and continue to benefit from our increased defense and offensive production.As many note, there are durability questions surrounding Beckett that have followed him throughout his career. But unlike with the Marlins, Beckett has been able to reach two major milestones in 3 of his 4 years with the Red Sox–30 starts and 200 innings pitched

When I think about this extension, I am haunted by the ghosts of Barry Zito, Jason Schmidt, Kevin Brown, Mike Hampton, and Mark Mulder [*question to Cub fans: one more mediocre season and we might put Carlos Zambrano and his 100 million dollar contract on this list?] All guys who signed large contracts somewhere around their 30th birthday. All got paid significant money to not pitch by the end of their contracts (ok, so Zito is still pitching, but will he be in another 6 years?). Perhaps I am paranoid, but I feel that Beckett is a prime candidate to end up on this list. Certainly, one has to wonder, given those terrible outings, if Beckett is the kind of pitcher who will be able to adjust his game as he ages and loses a few mph.

Sometimes, I honestly hope I am wrong about stuff. This is one of those times. I hope Beckett signs the extension and wins 70 games over those four years. Last year, I did argue that he was one of the best starting pitchers in baseball if you overlook his few aberrant starts every season. I guess my fear is that those aberrant starts will begin appearing with more regularity as he ages.

On a side note, here’s a great article from 2008 theorizing that slight kinesthetic differences explain Zito’s rapid decline. The distance from Cy Young to bum seems to be a few centimeters side to side.

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