Change-UpMarch 08, 2010
A Quick Note on Josh Beckett & John Lackey
By Patrick Sullivan

Some of the rationale for extending Josh Beckett that I have come across hinges on comparing Beckett to his new teammate, John Lackey. This makes sense, since they are just about the same age and are similar pitchers in many regards. The conclusion most often drawn, however, looks off-base to me. Yes, the Beckett decision has a lot to do with Lackey. No, the Red Sox should not sign Josh Beckett because they signed John Lackey.

Each off-season presents its own set of challenges and opportunities. This off-season, the Red Sox thought that allocating a large chunk of their free-agent spend towards a marquee starting pitcher on the wrong side of 30 was a good idea. Since Beckett is probably a tick better than John Lackey and is himself set to enter free agency after the 2010 season, one school of thought is that the Red Sox’ logic would somehow be inconsistent were they to choose to let Beckett walk just one season after bringing aboard Lackey. It’s a dream storyline for talk radio, and you can be sure they’ll be ready to pounce in 2011 and beyond should Lackey falter and Beckett excel wearing some other uniform.

All a front office sets out to do is maximize their team’s chances for short term and long term success. And as I noted the last time I addressed the topic of a possible Beckett extension, signing pitchers over the age of 30 to long-term contracts is risky. Signing two of them, having as much as 25% of your annual payroll tied up in two aging starters, is even more risky. Should Beckett walk, it’s no indictment of his pitching. Instead, it will have simply been the wrong time for the Red Sox and Beckett to strike a long-term deal. Given a choice of Beckett or Lackey for the next five seasons, maybe Boston would have chosen Beckett if he was a free agent after 2009. But he wasn’t, Lackey was, the Red Sox wanted another pitcher and Lackey was available. Now Boston must manage their longer-term prudently, which could mean letting Beckett go.

And so while the sports radio guys salivate at the chance to tell you that “YOU HAVE TO SIGN BECKETT IF YOU SIGN LACKEY”, the reality goes something more like this. If you sign Lackey, you had better think long and hard before you decide two aging starting pitchers should account for 20-25% of your payroll. As Craig Calcaterra said on the topic, “it’s just business.”


But isn't 30 a pretty arbitrary number by which to pronounce a player as "aging"? I mean, Beckett won't even turn 30 until May 15. Is it really the case that, once the clock strikes midnight on 5/15, Beckett will suddenly start hurtling down a steep decline in skill and durability?

I just think we tend to exaggerate the risks and effects of aging, especially as it pertains to guys in the their early 30s. And you HAVE to sign "older" guys if you want to be in the FA market at all. FAs are by definition older than guys who are just coming up or guys in their arbitration years. Maybe there's a higher risk of decline due to aging, but there's also something to be said for acquiring players who have proven they can perform at the highest levels year after year.

I commented on your first piece and I will comment hear again. Lackey and Beckett as a comparison really do not work at all. Check out the totals from the past three seasons





Beckett has been a top five SP over the past three years and one can make a very resonable case he has not even peaked yet. If I can see this then I am sure the Sox can see the same numbers. If they can lock him up for the next 4-5 seasons at anything close to what Lackey got they probably got a steal.

@BD: The list of pitchers who have sustained excellence over an extended period of time well into their 30's consists of a really elite group. The chances of having two on the same team are small. And so the question becomes, do you want Beckett and Lackey or do you want, say, Casey Kelly to fill in for Beckett and take a run at Pujols or Mauer? It's a matter of allocating finite resources.

@Mike Ketchen: I don't disagree with your Beckett/Lackey comp. I thought my "tick better" remark was adequate but if not, it's probably just semantics. I agree that Beckett's the superior pitcher.

But that still doesn't change my point, that Lackey's presence makes a Beckett extension challenging/risky.

"The list of pitchers who have sustained excellence over an extended period of time well into their 30's consists of a really elite group. "

I think the reason this list is so small is because there are so few pitchers who have "sustained excellence over an extended period of time," PERIOD. The question is, if you have such a "sustained-excellence" pitcher, and he is 30 years old, how great is the risk that his skills/durability will erode over the next 5-6 years?

I seriously doubt you could prove that a 30-year-old elite starter, with a track record of success similar to what Beckett has, is at a big risk of decline over that 5-6 year period. By "big risk," I mean relative to the risk that any ballplayer faces over that period.

If the "sustained-excellence" 30-y.o. pitcher isn't at any particularly great risk of rapid skill decline, then really what you are worried about is just the inherent risk of handing out another long-term contract. Those ARE risky, of course, but without them, you are automatically excluding from your roster most of the proven, elite players in the game.

Just for fun, I thought I would check out who the 30-32 year old "elite" pitchers were in 2002 to see how well they fared as they aged deeper into their 30s. However, there were only 11 starters in that age cohort to begin with, and only one of them could reasonably be said to have enjoyed "sustained excellence" up to that point in his career: Pedro Martinez. FWIW, Pedro was terrific for 4 seasons (through 2005) before dropping to a 4.48 ERA in '06. Pedro, of course, is just one guy, and I don't think his example proves anything one way or the other. But I suspect that, if you looked at the actual careers of elite, veteran pitchers aged 30-32 -- admittedly a small group -- and see what THEY did in up to age 35-37, you would find that plenty of them continued to perform at a high level well into their 30s.