Josh Beckett leads off this week’s, ESPN: The Magazine. The cover, which features a fierce looking Beckett sitting in the Red Sox dugout, is headlined, “Tough Town, Tough Race: Josh Beckett Couldn’t Be Happier.”
There aren’t many people who actually think Beckett couldn’t be happier. After last night’s fiasco — Beckett gave up six runs on two homers in the sixth inning, including Shin-Soo Choo‘s first career grand slam — his ERA is back at 5.00 and he’s given up more home runs (31) than Manny Ramirez has hit (30). To put it another way, Beckett is having a worse season, than Matt Clement did in 2005, with a higher ERA (5.00 to 4.67), a higher slugging percentage (.467 versus .398), and a higher OPS (.779 versus .731).
Sox fans — and the team’s front office — have more faith that Beckett will become a dominant starter than they do that Clement will ever pitch effectively again. Clement, who has another year left on his three-year deal, has pretty much become an afterthought, while Beckett was given a three-year, $30 million contract extension last month. Part of the reason for this is Beckett looks (and plays) the part of the tough talking, hard-throwing ace, while Clement looks like a dweeb always on the verge of tears. “It’s awesome,” Beckett told ESPN when asked about playing in Boston. Last year, even after being selected for the All-Star team, Clement often seemed more intimidated than exhilerated; about halfway through the season, he told me how he used to be able to bike to Wrigley Field during his tenure with the Cubs; in Boston, he said, he practically had to wear a disguise when getting into his car.
Beckett’s attitude does more than help stave off the boo-birds. Clement appears psychologically incapable of pitching in an environment like Boston, at least when he’s not doing well; Beckett should (and hopefully will) thrive off the attention. This is a man, after all, whose ego Curt Schilling admiringly compares to his own. (“He’s cocky,” Schilling told ESPN. “So am I. You have to be cocky to be good.”) But right now, Beckett’s ego seems to be getting him in more trouble than anything else. As I’ve said before, the days of him being able to rear back and blow hitters away with his disturbingly straight fastball are over; this ain’t the NL East. (Beckett’s thrown over 70 percent fastballs this year, and hitters’ batting average is more than twice as high when Beckett’s throwing heat as when he’s throwing curves.) And at some point, you have to hope Beckett will cut the “I call my own games” crap and realize he has something to learn from the team’s catchers. There’s a reason Schilling — one of the best prepared pitchers in the game — trusts Jason Varitek enough to call all his starts. There’s no good reason Beckett should be calling off Varitek (or any other catcher — and that includes Doug Mirabelli).
Beckett may be leaning away from his knee-buckling, shoulders-to-shins curve because snapping the ball is one reason for his history with blisters. He may just consider it a blow to his manliness to rely less heavily on the pitch that made him famous. If it’s the former, you have to hope that modern medicine — which can improve people’s vision with lasers and take tendons from one part of the body and strap them on somewhere else — will come up with a cure for delicate fingers. If it’s the latter, you have to hope that Beckett will learn as much from Schilling’s humility as he will from his arrogance. Schilling didn’t become a dominant pitcher until he got a good talking to from Roger Clemens. Beckett certainly does have the skill to be the staff’s next ace; this is, after all, the player with whom John Henry was so enamored he tried to find a way to hold on to Beckett as part of any deal to sell the Marlins. But as this season has shown, he still has a long way to go.