You can be forgiven if you wrote Josh Beckett off sometime in the last year or so. That's usually the right thing to do with older pitchers who see their ERAs balloon over 5.00 before going in for a major surgery.
But if you hadn't noticed Beckett's return to form in 2014, there's no time to do so like the present.
The Los Angeles Dodgers veteran right-hander made his ninth start of the season on Sunday, and it ended up being an historic one. Beckett tossed the first no-hitter of his career against the Philadelphia Phillies at Citizens Bank Park to help lead the Dodgers to a 6-0 victory.
Beckett walked three in the game and needed a career-high 128 pitches to see the job through. That's a lot of pitches for a 34-year-old coming off an injury-ruined season.
But not surprisingly, Beckett said after the game that he made it clear to Dodgers manager Don Mattingly that he wasn't coming out:
"Donnie and I talked about it, I wasn't coming out of the game." -Josh Beckett. #Dodgers— Los Angeles Dodgers (@Dodgers) May 25, 2014
In the end, the last of Beckett's 128 pitches was a fastball that buzzed across the bottom of the strike zone against Chase Utley for his sixth strikeout and the final out of his no-no.
Beckett's historic outing took place just a little over a year after he made what would end up being his last start of 2013 on May 13. He initially found himself on the disabled list with a groin strain, but the Dodgers eventually revealed that he had nerve irritation in his right arm and hand.
Beckett was dealing with something called "thoracic outlet syndrome." He tried to get himself back into shape through rest and rehab, but he ultimately needed a season-ending procedure in July.
Here's Ramona Shelburne of ESPN.com on what that procedure entailed:
Last year Beckett had surgery that removed a rib putting pressure on a nerve, causing tingling in arm & fingers. Today he threw a no-htter.— Ramona Shelburne (@ramonashelburne) May 25, 2014
Bleacher Report's Will Carroll noted on Twitter that it's difficult to return from the injury that sidelined Beckett in 2013. Former St. Louis Cardinals ace Chris Carpenter can vouch, as he had just six starts left in him after undergoing the same surgery for the same problem in 2012.
So Beckett had that to come back from in 2014, which was going to make a bounce-back season tough enough. In addition, his 4.76 ERA across 36 starts in 2012 and 2013 suggested he was done anyway.
This would be our cue to hand it to Beckett. Rather than a total fluke authored by some random starter, his Sunday no-no is just the latest step in what's been an impressive comeback.
Via FanGraphs, Beckett's comeback currently looks like this:
Beckett's 2.43 ERA stands out the most. It's more than two runs lower than the ERA he racked up between 2012 and 2013, a turnaround that suggests he's back to being an ace pitcher again.
Those last two columns are less sure about that, however. FIP and xFIP are metrics that estimate what a pitcher's ERA should be based on strikeouts, walks, hit-by-pitches and home runs, with the difference between the two being that xFIP takes the step of normalizing a pitcher's home run rate.
But while these two metrics aren't sure that Beckett's been as dominant as his 2.43 ERA suggests, it is significant that they agree he's definitely improved on his 2012-2013 performance. They may not see him as an ace, but they do see him as a pitcher who's improved.
And you can see why that is in a couple of the other statistics we just looked at.
It's not good that Beckett's walk rate (BB/9) is up slightly, but it's a great look that his strikeout rate (K/9) is up more than slightly. And while he hasn't ditched his home run problem (HR/9), it's ideal that Beckett has been getting more ground balls (GB%).
How has Beckett done it? Bill Plaschke of the Los Angeles Times made an observation of Beckett's no-hitter that works as a helpful hint:
Most impressive is how Beckett, who used to live on fastball, pitches 1st no-hitter with curves and offspeed stuff..adjusting into history— Bill Plaschke (@BillPlaschke) May 25, 2014
Plaschke is right. As a pitcher is wont to do when he can sit in the mid-90s, Beckett did used to live on his fastball. Per FanGraphs, he threw heat about 75 percent of the time in 2002 and was still going to his heat more than 50 percent as recently as 2011.
But not this year.
Beckett entered his Sunday outing throwing fastballs 35.5 percent of the time. With his average fastball velocity now down to 92.0 miles per hour—close to three miles per hour off his peak of 94.7 in 2006—Beckett has come to rely more on his cutter, curveball and changeup.
Especially his curveball. Beckett's always had a good one, but he's never featured it more than he has this year. He was throwing his curve more than 30 percent of the time before Sunday, and the raw data at Brooks Baseball says he threw 40 more on Sunday.
Beckett used to be a classic power pitcher. But in 2014, he's become more Bronson Arroyo than Nolan Ryan.
And it's working. Hitters have yet to adjust to this new version of Beckett that's at least as likely to throw a curve or a changeup as he is a fastball. His transition from a pitcher who could blow hitters away to a pitcher who can keep hitters guessing is going about as well as such transitions can go.
Again, whether Beckett has much staying power as a sub-3.00 ERA pitcher is debatable. But since few expected him to be a quality pitcher again and certainly even fewer expected him to throw a no-hitter at this stage, maybe that's academic.
Indeed, this new Beckett has already surpassed expectations. And for that, his time in the spotlight is well-deserved.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked.
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