Josh Beckett: To Extend or Not?
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):
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:
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:
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.
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!