Friday, June 5, 2009

Leaning on Beckett good baseball business

Josh Beckett hasn't been taking it easy this year. Photo from this site.

Josh Beckett had perhaps his most impressive regular season start as a member of the Red Sox Wednesday, when he carried a no-hitter into the seventh inning and ended up allowing three unearned runs on two hits and two walks while whiffing nine over 7 2/3 innings in the Sox’ 10-5 win over the Tigers.

As fascinating as it was to watch Beckett flirt with the no-hitter, the most interesting thing about his performance was in the box score: One hundred nineteen pitches. It was the 10th straight start in which Beckett has exceeded 100 pitches and kept him on pace for the busiest season by a Sox starter since Terry Francona became manager in 2004.

Beckett has thrown at least 100 pitches in 10 of his 11 starts (he threw 93 in the opener against the Rays), has exceeded 110 pitches seven times and is averaging 112 pitches per start. If he maintains that kind of workload, he’ll almost certainly break the Francona-era records for most 100-pitch starts (26 by Curt Schilling in 2004), most 110-pitch starts (17 by Daisuke Matsuzaka in 2007) and highest average pitch count (109 by Matsuzaka in 2007). He’s less likely to match or exceed the records for highest pitch (133 by Schilling in 2006) or the most 120-pitch outings (six by Matsuzaka in 2007).

It says a lot about how baseball has evolved when two months of 100-pitch starts send a guy to for hours (or maybe it just says something about me). We’re so used to big red flashing lights accompanying the 100-pitch mark that the first instinct is to wonder if Beckett is being overworked.

But immersion in the numbers indicates Beckett’s workload is perfectly reasonable. He’s only averaging six more pitchers per start than Jon Lester and 12 more pitches per start than Tim Wakefield.

And Beckett—who, at 29, has pitched 200 innings just twice due to a variety of injuries but who hasn’t undergone an operation on his right arm—will never be better equipped to throw more than 100 pitches every five days than he is right now.

This is also the first time under Theo Epstein that the Sox have had an ace in the prime of his career. So why shouldn’t the Sox take advantage of the rarest commodity in baseball and allow their best pitcher—and the one best-prepared for a heavy workload—to pitch deeper into games than most, especially given the number of close games the Sox have played with Beckett on the mound? The game Wednesday marked only the third time this season Beckett exited with a lead or deficit of more than two runs.

In addition, it’s made sense for the Sox to go longer with Beckett in the three starts in which closer Jonathan Papelbon was not available. Papelbon threw 39 pitches Apr. 11, the day before Beckett threw 103 pitches against the Angels. Papelbon threw 32 pitches May 4, the day before Beckett threw 108 pitches against the Yankees. And Papelbon threw 35 pitches Tuesday.

What is interesting is to wonder how Beckett’s workload will affect the Sox’ plans after next season, when his contract expires (the Sox’ $10 million option for 2010 vests if he makes 28 starts this year). If Beckett remains healthy through 2010, he’ll be the unique no. 1 starting pitcher who hits free agency at or near his peak.

But the Sox aren’t in the business of paying for past performance, and he’s almost certainly gone if he’s looking for CC Sabathia-type money. Even if he’s not, the Sox—with an enviable stockpile of young arms throughout the minor league system—may decide they’ve already gotten the best years of Beckett’s career and that it’s better to reinvest elsewhere.

So from a pure business standpoint, it makes sense for the Sox to get all they can out of Beckett this year and next. The Indians and Brewers wrung all they could last year out of Sabathia, who threw 100 pitches 29 times in 35 starts for the two teams, exceeded 110 pitches 16 times, averaged 109 pitches per start and pitched on three days’ rest in each of his final three outings for the Brewers as he helped pitch them into the playoffs for the first time since 1982.

Sabathia profited, too, to the tune of the seven-year, $161 million deal he signed with the Yankees in December. The Yankees would seem to have plenty of reason to proceed cautiously with him, especially since he can opt out after three years and would be far less likely to do so if his arm explodes. But the Yankees have worked Sabathia as hard as the Indians and Brewers did last year: He has thrown at least 100 pitches in each of his last six starts, in all but two of his 11 starts overall and is averaging 110 pitches per outing.

Of course, why wouldn’t the Yankees want what they paid for out of their 28-year-old former Cy Young Award winner? The Mets played it safe with Johan Santana last year and missed the playoffs as a result: They lost three games in which Santana was pulled with the lead or the score tied after 105 pitches or less.

Perhaps the Sox and Beckett will spend the rest of this season and next season maximizing their relationship. Even if that’s not the Sox’ goal, it makes even more sense, from a purely baseball perspective, to rely as much as they can on him.

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