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Watching the Red Sox blow an 8-2 lead on Friday night was a miserable experience. Even worse is the fact that Josh Beckett was out there for most of it, allowing six runs in five innings. Normally I would write this off as a bad game from a great pitcher; but it’s not that simple anymore. The truth is, and I really hate to say this: Josh Beckett just isn’t an ace anymore. It’s hard for Sox fans to accept this, heck, even Terry Francona hasn’t accepted it, as he showed us when he made Beckett the Opening Day starter (he was promptly shelled by the Yankees). We’ve all seen Beckett at the top of his game, which makes his recent struggles even harder to take considering he only just turned 30. For a full perspective of how far Beckett has fallen, let’s return to the 2007 season, where he finished 2nd in Cy Young voting. Brace yourselves, it’s borderline depressing.
In the fall of 2007, there were three sure things in Boston; Death, Taxes, and Josh Beckett. In his first postseason with the Red Sox, Beckett possessed a surreal combination of Pedro Martinez’s dominance and Curt Schilling’s guts in big games. He was literally unbeatable, winning all four of his playoff starts while posting a microscopic 1.33 ERA, and the numbers didn’t even begin to show how great he was.
Going into Game 5 of the Cleveland series, the Red Sox were left for dead; down three games to one and playing an elimination game on the road against that year’s Cy Young winner, CC Sabathia. Unfortunately for the Indians, Beckett wasn’t going down without a fight, firing eight masterful innings while striking out 11 and only allowing one run. It was a series-altering gem. Unable to celebrate a pennant at home, the Indians crumbled on the road, losing the next two games by a combined score of 23-4. The Red Sox went on to win the World Series that year, getting one more brilliant performance from Beckett along the way.
In the aftermath, Beckett became the most envied commodity in baseball; a big-game stopper, an ace who would not let their team lose in a must-win game, someone you could always count on. Even new Yankees owner Hank Steinbrenner hyped up mega-prospect Joba Chamberlain by labeling the rookie “our Beckett.”
Beckett struggled with back and oblique injuries in 2008, setbacks that robbed him of his high-90’s velocity. Either way, when the playoffs started, everyone in Boston had no doubt that he would somehow recapture that magic of the past season. With his 2007 postseason, Beckett had reached the same level that Tom Brady had reached with Boston fans; we always believed they would come through when it mattered.
Things didn’t go as planned. Beckett struggled in the Angels series, but his mediocre performance didn’t ruin Red Sox fans’ confidence. The Sox had won the first game of the ALCS against the Rays behind a superb performance from Daisuke Matsuzaka, and with Beckett on the mound for Game 2, the stars seemed ready to align for a second straight trip to the World Series. Things looked even better when the offense started battering Rays starter Scott Kazmir. Everything was right in Red Sox Nation, until Beckett started to fall apart. Every time the Sox scored, Beckett would concede the lead at the bottom of the inning. It was like watching a bad start by Tim Wakefield, not one of the best big-game pitchers in Boston history.
He eventually left after 4.1 innings after giving up a startling eight runs on nine hits. He rebounded with a decent performance in Game 6, but the damage had been done. His inability to hold any leads in Game 2 gave the Rays life. Instead of the Rays being down 2-0 heading back to Boston, Beckett allowed them to even the series at 1-1. More importantly, his aura of invincibility had been compromised.
After a great first half in 2009, Beckett posted a thoroughly below-average 4.53 ERA in the second half and only won six more games. He faltered in the playoffs once again, and was completely out-pitched by the Angels’ Jered Weaver in his one start. 2010 hasn’t been any better. Injury-plagued yet again, Beckett’s ERA currently sits at an abysmal 6.51.
Look, it’s easy to attribute all of Beckett’s problems to injury, but even when he’s been healthy, he’s just not the same. He seems to be over reliant on his fastball, as he has showed little confidence in the dazzling curveball that had made him such a force in previous years. According the the Elias Sports Bureau, from 2006 to 2009 , Beckett threw his curve 25 percent of the time. In 2010, he’s only throwing it 18.7 percent of the time. This drop off means he’s throwing far more fastballs, which explains his problems against teams with a lot of power like the Blue Jays and the Yankees, power-hitting teams that tee-up and crush fastballs. Beckett’s ERA against the Blue Jays the past three years is a stunning 6.92, and while his ERA against the Yankees is a much better 4.38, these are not the numbers your “ace” to be posting against division rivals. Beckett also struggles against perennial playoff teams such as the Twins (5.50 ERA) and the Angels (4.46).
When the Sox signed John Lackey this off season, I had two revelations upon examining Lackey’s numbers. The first one was a pleasant surprise: “Wow, John Lackey has similar numbers to Josh Beckett!” The second thought I had was quite discouraging: “that means Josh Beckett is no better than John Lackey.”
It is with great pain that I say this: Josh Beckett has become, at best, our No. 4 starter.