What Can Josh Beckett Provide the Dodgers?

via Keith Allison on Flickr

For all of the earth-shattering moves the Dodgers have made lately in an attempt to win now, there’s still this stark reality: now that Chad Billingsley is on the disabled list again, the starting rotation currently contains Joe Blanton and Aaron Harang and, starting tonight, Josh Beckett.

There was a time where that would have been wonderful, and it reminds me that I need to go update last winter’s “Ned Colletti is trying to win the 2006 division title” post, which came before the additions of Blanton, Beckett, Adrian Gonzalez, Shane Victorino, & even Bobby Abreu. But in 2012, it’s somewhat troubling for a team trying to win the World Series, and all concerns about money and future years aside, finding out what sort of pitcher Beckett can be might have nearly as much of an impact on this year’s run as going from James Loney to Gonzalez at first base.

According to several published reports, the Dodgers had been trying to get Beckett at various different points this year, and that’s encouraging. Whether it’s deserved or not, it means that that the team doesn’t see him as merely another bad contract to eat in order to get Gonzalez; rather, it sounds like they see something in him they either really like or think they can fix with the right coaching.

Beckett only just turned 32 this May, so he’s not really that old, and despite what the Boston papers would have you believe – and for the record, I do not care even a little about overblown “fried chicken” or “OMG golfing!!” histrionics, because guys like Dan Shaughnessy are the Boston equivalent of Bill Plaschke, except maybe even worse – he’s actually coming off one of the best years of his career. In 193 innings for Boston in 2011, he put up a career-best 2.93 ERA; while I’m pointing that out mostly because I like saying “career-best” and not because ERA matters, even his 3.57 FIP generally matched the several good years of his career (2004-05, 2008-09), behind his one really good year (a second-place finish in the 2007 AL Cy Young) and his two lousy years (his 2006 Boston debut and an injury-plagued 2010).

Yet so far in 2012, Beckett hasn’t been able to match his solid 2011. Slowed by injuries to his right shoulder (which put him on the disabled list in June), lower back (which cost him a week earlier this month), and a mildly strained lat (which cost him a start in May), his FIP has jumped to 4.27, largely due to a strikeout rate which has fallen out of the 8.0/9 range for the first time since 2006, down to 6.6/9. (Despite, oddly, his swinging strike percentage being about where it usually is.)

Doesn’t take a whole lot of research to see why that might be happening. Here’s Beckett’s velocity chart, per FanGraphs, and tell me if you don’t see something a bit off all the way to the right:

Yeah. So that’s not great. Back in early May, after the lat injury, Dave Cameron dug into this a little deeper:

It’s not just his fastball, either. His curveball is off over 2 MPH from last year, so this isn’t just a case of a missing top-end velocity, but instead, Beckett’s just not throwing anything as hard as he has in the past. Missing velocity isn’t always a sign of a health problem, but in Beckett’s case, we don’t have to speculate about whether there’s something physically wrong – the Red Sox already confirmed that there is when they skipped his last start.

So, we have a guy whose velocity is down across the board, who missed a start nine days ago with an acknowledged muscle strain, and at the same time is posting the lowest strikeout rate and highest home run rate of his career. The logical conclusion is that the physical condition – whether it is actually as minimal as a strain or something more serious that hasn’t yet been discovered – is likely causing the diminished velocity, which in turn is playing a significant role in Beckett’s inability to get hitters out.

Without his once-excellent fastball to turn to, Beckett has been throwing it less than ever (47.6% so far, the first time it’s ever been below 50%, and far down from the high-60s it was in at his peak) and replacing it with a cutter (steadily increasing to 21.1% this year). The problem is, Beckett’s cutter is flat, and generally awful. He can still succeed without that heat, but he’s going to have to find a different way to do it.

It hasn’t gotten much better, either, though it does appear he’s regained a small amount of top-end velocity since returning from the back woes. In 38 innings over his last seven starts, Beckett has a 29/15 K/BB rate along with 46 hits and 30 earned runs. I suppose numbers can’t tell the entire story, however, because I have absolutely no idea how to explain the following: Beckett’s HR/9 rate is 1.13, a bit above his 1.01 career mark.

Okay, so? Well, it’s been anything but consistent. Beckett allowed five dingers in Detroit in his first start of the year, including two apiece to Prince Fielder & Miguel Cabrera. (That’s bad). He’s allowed seven over his last three starts, including two to Ichiro Suzuki in his final outing with Boston last weekend. (That’s really bad.) But in the 17 starts in between, from April 13 – July 31? Just four homers allowed. That’s more of a fun quirk than anything meaningful, I suppose, though the fact that he’s coming into a start in Coors Field on a homer binge probably isn’t great. (Beckett has allowed just two homers in four starts in Colorado, though none has come since 2005 when he was still with Florida.)

So performance-wise, it seems like there’s a lot to be worried about. Now that all being said, there’s been a lot written about how bad the situation had become in Boston, and if even half of it is true, Beckett is probably thrilled to be somewhere new. It’s hard for me to say that being unhappy in a media fishbowl causes you to lose velocity off your fastball, so I won’t, but how many times have we seen a pitcher leave a bad situation to come into a pennant race and get recharged, at least for a short time. Or for a guy to leave the tougher league to come to the land of big parks (tonight’s start aside) and pitchers batting? I’m going to try to not put too much emphasis on a start in Coors Field, which could easily go poorly, but for the rest of the season it’s potentially not too difficult to see something of an improvement over his Boston numbers, if only from avoiding the designated hitter.

Really, it comes down to expectations on this for me. If you’re expecting Beckett to be the ace who led Boston to the title in 2007, you’re going to be sorely disappointed. But if Beckett can merely come to the Dodgers and be a mid-rotation starter, someone good enough to help get the club to October and bounce Blanton when Billingsley returns, maybe even potentially be your fourth starter should things get to that point in the playoffs, that’s something useful. It’s not unrealistic, I don’t think, to expect that from him.

Is that worth his salary, and does it make you feel great for the two remaining years of his contract? I’m not so sure, but that’s a discussion for another time. For 2012, there’s a very clear need for help in the rotation, and if Beckett can contribute, this might not just be known as “the monster Adrian Gonzalez” deal until the end of time.