Change-UpFebruary 03, 2010
Josh Beckett: To Extend or Not?
By Patrick Sullivan

Whether you think they've shaped up as a bunch of banjo-hitting ninnies or the stingiest run prevention unit this side of the 1968 St. Louis Cardinals, or both, or somewhere in between, the Boston Red Sox have set their 2010 roster for all intents and purposes. While Red Sox players and fans alike gear up for another exciting season with high expectations, it falls to the Boston front office to focus on longer term roster planning, no small task given the personnel shifts that are sure to continue.

In the lineup David Ortiz, Victor Martinez and Adrian Beltre will become unrestricted free agents at the end of the 2010 season. Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon's contract also expires and given his not-so-subtle eagerness for his big payday, it's fair to say he will probably be moving on. The most critical looming free agent decision, however, will center on Josh Beckett. Beckett will pitch out his 30-year old season this year, his fifth in a Red Sox uniform.

The choice to extend Beckett will test Theo Epstein and his Baseball Operations staff. Beckett's popular, both with teammates and Boston's rabid fan base. We all know that Beckett has experienced an inordinate amount of post-season success. And yet, whether it's a nagging injury here or there, his proclivity to give up the gopher ball or the mere fact that he will be 31 in the first season of his new contract, the Red Sox have a number of red flags to consider. Let's take stock of the factors surrounding Beckett's case.

The first thing to understand is that Beckett is a truly elite pitcher. Since he joined the Red Sox, let's look at where he has ranked in the American League in both xFIP and Wins Above Replacement (WAR):

          xFIP      WAR
2006       21       30
2007        4        2
2008        2        8
2009        7        7

In just under 800 total innings pitched since 2006, Beckett has a 116 ERA+ but if you take out his outlier 5.01 ERA season his first year in Boston, that ERA+ figure jumps to 126 while averaging just under 200 innings per season. To see how he has stacked up since 2007 with other American League pitchers, consider below:

                IP      ERA+
Greinke        553.2     149
Halladay       710.1     141
F. Hernandez   629.2     133
Lackey         563.2     129
Sabathia       593.1     129
Beckett        587.1     126

You get the picture. Josh Beckett is an excellent power arm with historically standout peripherals and dependable durability, and that's a critical part of this equation. He's not Mike Hampton or Barry Zito. And yet, before you commit the sort of dollars it will take to secure Beckett's services, it's essential to understand how pitchers perform from 31 on.

Above, I showed where Beckett stacked up among American League pitchers from 2007 to 2009 with at least 500 innings pitched. Applying the same parameters but extending it out to include the National League and pitchers 31 and older, we get a total of 10 pitchers (as opposed to 35 under 31). Half of them posted ERA+ totals under 100 over that time, and the rest of the list looks like this:

                IP      ERA+
Lilly          588.2     124
D. Davis       542.0     110
Lowe           605.2     108
Pettitte       614.0     104
Washburn       523.1     102

The rest of the list includes Kevin Millwood, Jamie Moyer, Braden Looper, Jeff Suppan and Livan Hernandez. Aside from Ted Lilly, I think the Red Sox would be disappointed with output in line with any of the other 9 pitchers. But let's tinker with the list further. Let's say the Red Sox or any other team giving Beckett 5 years would like him to average 175 innings per season. So let's set the following Play Index list parameters: at least 875 innings (5x175) with an ERA+ of at least 110 from 2000 to 2009, age 31 and older. Here is what we get.

Rk Player ERA+ IP Age Tm
1 Randy Johnson 137 1885.1 36-45 ARI-NYY-SFG
2 Roger Clemens 134 1454.1 37-44 NYY-HOU
3 Curt Schilling 133 1569.1 33-40 TOT-ARI-BOS
4 John Smoltz 132 1058.2 34-42 ATL-TOT
5 Pedro Martinez 126 935.0 31-37 BOS-NYM-PHI
6 Greg Maddux 117 1939.2 34-42 ATL-CHC-TOT-SDP
7 Mike Mussina 116 1790.2 31-39 BAL-NYY
8 Tom Glavine 114 1753.2 34-42 ATL-NYM
9 Andy Pettitte 113 1342.0 31-37 NYY-HOU
10 Al Leiter 111 1096.1 34-39 NYM-TOT
Provided by View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 2/3/2010.

Whoa. You might have to go to the very bottom of that list before you even get to a non future Hall of Famer. In Major League Baseball, only the truly elite starting pitchers survive. And Jamie Moyer and Tim Wakefield, I suppose, but that's another story.

The first lesson here is that it's critical to understand that there is a premium to be paid on the unrestricted free agent market, and that you have to recalibrate performance expectations. You might not get the late-aughts Beckett for his next contract, and it might feel like you've overpaid at times, but when you consider how much value Boston got in this last contract, it could all even out. Let's take the John Lackey deal as an example and given Lackey's similarities to Beckett, it's not a bad proxy at all. If you believe Fangraphs free agent dollar values assigned to each win, all the Red Sox need from Lackey to make the deal worthwhile is output like Scott Baker or Carl Pavano produced in 2009, or Andy Sonnanstine in 2008. Can Beckett do that in his 31 to 35 seasons? Maybe.

The second lesson is that, given the odds of a 30-plus pitcher living up to his end of the deal, there are probably better areas to allocate your free agent spend. In Boston's case, this is especially true given the commitment they have made to John Lackey this off-season. As a Red Sox fan, I am not ready to state explicitly that they should let Beckett walk but $35-$40 million committed to Lackey and Beckett annually from 2011-2014 has the potential to hamper Boston's flexibility. As with anything else, this decision will come down to Boston's ability to meld medical, scouting and performance analysis insight to generate an accurate projection of Beckett's future output.

Now don't mess it up!



Solid piece. With regards to his aging and skill set do and the Lackey comp, I think Beckett has proven to be the much better SP over the last three seasons. He has K/BB 4.51, generates more GB then FB and is starting to expand his repetoire by throwing more 2FB and CFB's. With all that said, he is no doubt a risky sign for anything beyond two years. However I can not help but think he is just now starting to peak and he may be a 5.5-6 WAR pitcher for the next three seasons.

Interesting stuff, Sully. It strikes me that many of the pitchers in your Hall of Fame list pitched in the steroids era. It seems highly likely that the healing properties of steroids could have played a large role in helping older pitchers recover and perform consistently.

That would mean that Beckett would have to pitch like a Hall of Famer, and do so with much stricter steroid policies in place.

I also have aquestions that isn't specific to Beckett, but always bugs me when we talk about value.

Market value, as a concept, only makes sense in the economic framework it was intended for, where there is a market with perfect competition. Perfect competition requires homogeneous goods and many agents buying and selling. Of course the MLB pitcher market doesn't meet these requirements. This makes market value estimates based on WAR highly suspect. In this non-Walrasian market, scarcity of goods is a really big deal. In determining value for Beckett, don't we need to know what alternatives are out there? As a Sox fans, we know how the Sox have struggled with below-average replacement pitchers. Does this make Beckett more valuable?

Those are good questions, Chris. Here is the Red Sox rotation in 2011 w/o Beckett:


Maybe they could add Lilly for a one or two year high AAV contract, Wakefield might still be effective, or they could look into other FA or trade possibilities.

I don't think they should feel like their backs are against the wall with Beckett.

If Buchholz can (finally) put it together, I think the Sox should probably let Beckett walk. I'd love to see him return, but I imagine he is going to want a higher contract than Lackey. And as you said, giving those two guys almost $40M a year into their mid-30s doesn't seem like the best policy unless the Sox are okay with carrying a $150M payroll going forward.

They dealt Nomar and let Pedro walk... one thing's for sure, the Sox don't let fanbase sentiment stand in the way of good business.

I think they should resign Beckett. I do believe he will want more than Lackey and why shouldn't he get it. Though he and Lackey are similar.. Beckett does pull ahead in the end. He has played hard for the Sox and deserves to get a bit more than Lackey for that reason alone! I would say 5/90 would be good. Nothing wrong with have a starting rotation of Beckett, Lester, and Lackey for at least the next three years!


I think your probably right, although there is a rather large drop-off from Beckett to Tazawa (assuming thats where Becketts innings go).

In recent years the Sox have pitched something ridiculous, like 12 different starters, some of them grabbed off the waiver wire. Its meaningful to talk about the starting 5, + prospects that should emerge by then, but given their recent history, the Sox are probably considering their backups as well. Add in their refusal to allow needs at the major league level to hurry player development, and theres a decent chance that they will be scrambling for a pitcher. Tazawa can be a long-man, and stay in the minors until needed, which gives them valuable flexibility.

Again, I think your probably right, and I think he will walk. But I think the Sox aren't asking "Are we paying too much?" but "Are we getting value relative to our other options?" and "What are the chances of a post-season appearance with and without him?" Both become crazy difficult questions to answer from a sabermetric perspective.

The worst part will be when fans scream 'they valued Lackey more than Beckett!' But in reality it will be a different year, with a different market and with different team needs. When it became clear they weren't going to land the proverbial 'big bat' this offseason, they had to look in a different direction. Next offseaon there will likely be more impact bats available and there will certainly be multiple lineup holes to fill (3B,DH&C) so the focus will HAVE to be on the offense. Not to mention the possiblity of turnover at the closer position. With Lester and Lackey at the top of the rotation and presumably one of Daisuke or Clay stepping up this year to be a top #3 and the other being a solid #4. Finding the 5th body for the rotation will likely be a minor item on the 'things to do' list of Theo and company and Beckett is quite likely to walk as a result.

Beckett 4.51 3.32 8.67 16.8

(27-29) 3.36 3.71 7.43 6.1

Schilling 4.25 3.3 9.01 23

My hope really does spring eternal.

Two other factors not mentioned:

* The Red Sox may value Beckett's draft picks more than in the past as FA comp could become history with the new CBA

* A deal could get done soon that nearly doubles Beckett's 2010 salary in exchange for a deal that only runs through 2014 or something similar to Lackey's.

As the economy continues to unravel, long-term guaranteed contract for pitchers in their 30s may disappear. That would be long overdue.