Beckett, Lackey and the bounce-back

January, 13, 2011
1/13/11
2:30
PM ET
ESPN’s Buster Olney, in his ESPN Insider blog, weighed in Thursday on how critical it will be for the Red Sox that John Lackey and Josh Beckett have bounce-back seasons in 2011.

Olney said the club viewed Lackey’s performance in the season’s last month as reason for encouragement, that he had struggled in making the transition from the AL West to the East and that an improved outfield defense (with a return to health for both Jacoby Ellsbury and Mike Cameron and the addition of Carl Crawford) should benefit the fly-ball pitcher.

In his last half-dozen starts of 2010, Lackey had a 3.46 ERA and a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 35 to 8 (in 39 innings), while holding opponents to a .277 on-base percentage. If he pitches like that this season, he’ll go a long way toward eliminating the perception that the Sox grossly overpaid for his services ($82.5 million for five seasons). Lackey frequently expressed the opinion that he pitched better than the results showed, but as Olney noted, he’s going to have to do a better job of getting left-handed hitters out (.298 batting average, .364 OBP).

With more success, perhaps we’ll see less of the petulant Lackey, who had a habit of displaying his unhappiness with his fielders when a play wasn’t made, throwing his hands in the air, glaring at the offending player, or looking into the dugout. No one in the clubhouse made a public issue of that tendency last season, but it was unbecoming -- as one Sox official said, you didn’t see one of his fielders throwing his hands in the air when Lackey hung a curveball that was hammered into the seats.

Of Beckett, who is coming off the worst season of his career (6-6, 5.78 ERA), Olney wrote:

“After Beckett struggled in his first season with the Red Sox in 2006, he walked out the door with a massive competitive chip on his shoulder, and came back in 2007 and pitched much better. Similarly, he came away from 2010 devoted to getting better for 2011, and the Red Sox have been monitoring his winter workouts, which seem to be going very, very well. Beckett has taken responsibility for his struggles, and Boston is hopeful that he'll bounce back.

“A turnaround for the 30-year-old Beckett may well be complicated though, by the fact that he doesn't have the same pure stuff that he did five years ago. Beckett has to get back to pitching inside better against lefties, and get back to being an effective three-pitch pitcher. He will need to refine the cut fastball, a pitch which was erratic for him last year.’’

John Tomase in the Herald published a little historical research Thursday suggesting that it’s hardly a lock for a pitcher who had a season as bad as Beckett did to bounce back.

“Thanks to the magic of baseball-reference.com, it was easy to sort for pitchers in their 30s who posted ERAs above 5.75 while pitching at least 125 innings,’’ Tomase wrote.

“The search returned 69 such seasons by 66 different pitchers. Jaime Navarro appeared on the list three straight times (which helps explain why the White Sox were so mediocre in the late 1990s), while Tim Belcher made it twice.

“Of those 66 pitchers, only three managed to regain something even remotely approximating their form, at least as starters.’’

The flip side, of course, is this: Beckett already once has shown the capacity to come back from a plus-5 ERA (in 2006) to deliver a Cy Young Award-worthy performance in 2007, when he was 20-7 with a 3.27 ERA and won all four of his postseason starts. His back miseries limited him to just 127 innings last season, and while he wasn’t pitching well even before he was hurt, he would appear to have the stuff and will to regain top form.

I did a little numbers-crunching of my own, using the extraordinary player index function on the baseball-reference.com site. I used these numbers from Beckett’s five seasons with the Red Sox, which took him through the age of 30: WHIP (walks+hits per innings pitched), ERA+ (which factors in the league ERA and adjusts to the player’s ballpark), walks per 9 IP, and strikeouts per 9 IP.

Here were Beckett’s numbers: 1.25 WHIP, 109 ERA+, walks per 9, 2.4, and strikeouts per 9, 8.2.

In baseball history, according to baseball-reference.com, there were six pitchers who in that time span (ages 26 to 30) matched or exceeded all of those numbers. The six: Sandy Koufax, Pedro Martinez, Johan Santana, Dan Haren, Curt Schilling, Josh Johnson. That’s pretty good company to keep. Tomase’s research is noteworthy, but there clearly are grounds for the type of bet the Red Sox made on Beckett when they signed him to a four-year, $68 million contract extension last spring.

Gordon Edes

Red Sox reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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