Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Beckett's The Real Thing

Count me in with Rich Lederer in thinking that the Nation did well to land Josh Beckett.

Alex and I visited this issue in detail yesterday off-line, although we were then focused on the possibility of a Blalock deal with the Rangers.

At the time, I had Beckett’s 2004 stats handy. As we all know, his decision record was unremarkable (9-9), but a casual glance reveals that his BAA was .226 and his K/9 were 8.73 over 157 IP and 26 starts.

Because I’m in a points league, I calculate a measure of point production per inning, independent of decisions and stamina. It’s quite straightforward: (SO-BB)/IP gives you Points Per Inning or PPI.

Beckett’s 0.63 PPI is the same as the much hyped AJ Burnett, and in the top-15 of all starting pitchers in both leagues. And he’s no one-season wonder: Beckett topped 0.60 PPI again in 2005.

For comparison, Randy Johnson was best in the 2004 season with a PPI of 1.00, Sheets and Santana crested 0.90, and Smoltz and Perez topped 0.80. There were five pitchers over 0.70 (Schmidt, Prior, Martinez, Schilling, Peavy).

The lesson in this, as in all matters involving baseball talent, is that the drop-off in production is steep: the group of superstar pitchers is very small.

Looking at the company Beckett kept in 2004, there were six other pitchers clustered from 0.66 to 0.61 PPI: Wood, Clemens, Carpenter, Beckett, Burnett, Clement, Oswalt.

That’s pretty illustrious company. Now take a look at their 2004 win-loss records (presented in descending order of individual PPI):
Wood 8-9
Clemens 18-4
Carpenter 15-5
Beckett 9-9
Burnett 7-6
Clement 9-13
Oswalt 20-10.

The bottom line is that any starting pitcher whose PPI is in Beckett’s class has a solid chance of turning-in 15 or 20 win seasons (as Beckett finally did in 2005, going 15-8 with essentially the same per-inning performance as 2004).

Go one more step down in the pitching pool, and the chances of 15 or 20 wins becomes very slim. Take one of these top-15 pitchers and give them run support (e.g. Oswalt, Carpenter, Clemens), and you turn the odds dramatically in your favour.

There are five lessons I draw from these numbers, all of which point to Boston having made a solid acquisition:

(1) Josh Beckett is a very good pitcher who will consistently deliver so-called “quality starts.” His multi-year performance at that level (unlike Matt Clement) is cause for confidence.

(2) Beckett’s only apparent weakness, which is cause for concern among the commentariat, is that he’s averaged 6 innings a start, and has an injury history. Please see point 1. The 6 innings Beckett pitches will be among the best in the league. It’s better for Boston, or any team, to have a an elite starter for 6 innings than a mediocre starter over 7+.

(3) Beckett’s stamina/injury history (see point 2) has implications for bullpen depth, but those implications are manageable. It’s time to sign a good middle reliever.

(4) Beckett is 25 years old and has several seasons under his belt. Boston is not just a better team for the 2006 season, but for 2007 and beyond if they can retain his services. And there is every chance Beckett will continue to physically develop to the point where he hits 200 innings. But why risk it if you don’t need to?

(5) Who cares about Mike Lowell? Just add the two salaries up and call that the ‘true cost’ for Josh Beckett. Lowell can warm the bench, spell the Greek, or be moved somewhere else to recover part of his salary.

It’s a shame for Beckett that he’s the bait the Marlins used to unload the Lowell contract, and a shame for Marlins fans (they are out there) that the team is again dumping salary. Hot prospects are no replacement for a proven young performer entering his prime.

As dreadful as Lowell is, the Marlins haven’t even managed to replace his production – or step-up with a slugger like Blalock – unless and until soon-to-be rookie Hanley Ramirez realizes his potential.

The Marlins are now financially stronger, but weaker in pitching, batting and fielding. And while there’s a ready market to make-up the lost lineup production, elite pitching is harder to acquire.

But if the money they’ve saved buys Florida a Washburn or even a Weaver, then the equation on talent may come out even or in their favour in the short term, and the Marlins will have gotten younger at the same time. If the Marlins spend well, rather than pocket the cash, there’s still a chance this was a genuine win-win deal.


At 6:08 PM, Blogger Alex said...

I've come around to the Beckett trade. Initially, I hesitated at the thought of giving up Ramirez and one of the top 2 pitching prospects, but Beckett's the real deal, and Lowell can hopefully be at worst a defensive sub/spot starter at 3rd, and pinch-hitter. If we can play everyday, all the better.

As for what the Sox are giving up, Jim Callis from Baseball America summed Ramirez up best when he said "he keeps hitting .275 and 8 homers". He has plenty of potential, but he hasn't put up great numbers in the minors. And they kept Jon Lester, the best pitching prospect in the system. Beckett immediately becomes the anchor of the rotation, and at worst I see him being a 15 win pitcher. Hopefully he can stay healthy and make the leap in the next couple of years. Even if he becomes a second-tier ace, a rotation of Beckett-Papelbon-Lester could be dangerous in a few years. As recent champions like the Angels, Marlins, and White Sox have shown, you can win the World Series without having a first-class ace, as long as you have a deep rotation and the right players in the field.

Right now, I'm curious who negotiated this trade on Boston's end. Whoever it is deserves a kudos, and hopefully sticks around once the new GM is hired. In fact, it makes me question what Jim Beattie, Jim Bowden, and David Wilder have done to deserve consideration that this person (or people) haven't.

At 1:12 AM, Blogger Andy Grabia said...

Why do they deserve kudos? All they needed was the money to pay Lowell. That doesn't take any talent.


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