Can Josh Beckett Stop His "Saberhagen Syndrome" with the Red Sox?

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Can Josh Beckett Stop His
Rich Schultz/Getty Images
When it comes to inconsistency, Beckett is as consistent as they come.

Josh Beckett certainly pitched well enough to win Saturday, but a no-decision against the Rays kept his record at a ho-hum 4-4. Even after three straight strong starts, his ERA is still a less-than-impressive 4.15 and the question remains: 

Is Beckett suffering from Saberhagen Syndrome?

Many baseball fans are familiar with Steve Blass Disease, named after the Pirates right-hander who was a World Series hero and 19-game winner in the early 1970s, and then suddenly found himself unable to get the ball over the plate. Blass lost his effectiveness all at once, never to get it back. 

Beckett's troubles more closely mirror another former pitcher who suited up for the Royals, Mets, Red Sox and Rockies from 1984-2001.

Bret Saberhagen was a two-time Cy Young Award winner before he turned 26, and earned the MVP award in the 1985 World Series for two complete-game victories over the Cardinals. There was something about his career, however, that confounded his managers and kept him from reaching the Hall of Fame heights once predicted for him.

I call it Saberhagen Syndrome. For nearly a decade, each time the slim righty had a winning season, he followed it up with a losing one. Starting with his rookie year, the stretch went like this:

1984: 10-11

1985: 20-6 Cy Young Award) 

1986: 7-12

Saberhagen could do it all—every other year.

 

1987: 18-10

1988: 14-16

1989:  23-6 (Cy Young Award)

1990:  5-9

1991:  13-8 

1992:  3-5

Record in even years: 39-53 (.423 winning percentage) 

Record in odd years: 74-30 (.711)

Saberhagen had several injuries during the stretch, and in some years his ERA was better than his record showed. But in terms of wins and losses there is no denying a pattern. He would pitch more consistently with Boston in the late '90s, but by then a bad shoulder had rendered him far less durable and his career was effectively over at age 35.

Beckett's case is a bit more complicated. He too has a propensity for pitching far better in odd years than even ones, which is when his earned-run average really shoots up. Starting with his first year in Boston, during which he somehow went 16-11, his stats look like this:

2006: 16-11, 5.01 ERA

Rich Schultz/Getty Images
It's not a stretch to say that Beckett has yet to reach his full potential.

2007: 20-7, 3.27

 

2008: 12-10, 4.03

2009: 17-6, 3.86

2010: 6-6. 5.78

2011: 13-7, 2.89

2012: 4-4, 4.15

Record and ERA in even years: 38-31, 4.79

Record and ERA in odd years: 50-20, 3.35

It's still unclear at this point if the trend is going to continue all the way through 2012; Beckett's ERA is actually far lower than his even-year average, and he's given up three runs or less in seven of his nine starts. Like Saberhagen, Beckett has shown an ability to be among the best pitchers in baseball, and he too has shined in the postseason—with two World Series rings to show for it.

But at age 32—the same age Steve Blass lost it all—Beckett is still seeking the consistency that is a trademark of great stars. Will he be able to find it this year, or will he continue to be an every-other-year ace?

Saul Wisnia lives less than seven miles from Fenway Park and works 300 yards from Yawkey Way. His latest book, Fenway Park: The Centennial, is available at amazon.com and his Red Sox reflections can be found at http://saulwisnia.blogspot.com/. You can reach him at saulwizz@gmail.com or @saulwizz.

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