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Josh Beckett: Doomed By The Cutter?

I was watching Baseball Tonight yesterday during the marathon Boston-Toronto game, and the hosts were opining on the causes for Josh Beckett's struggles so far in 2010* - notably in that 13-12 game, where he gave up 8 runs in just 3 innings pitched. Bobby Valentine suggested that Beckett has three quality pitches - a mid 90s fastball, a curve, and a change-up - but that he's fallen in love with a mediocre cutter and that's hurting him. Not one to take claims made by people on TV at face value, I thought I'd check it out.

* Beckett April 2010: 28.2 IP, 37 H, 24 R (23 ER), 4 HR, 13 BB, 20 K
Beckett April 2009: 28.2 IP, 36 H, 24 R (23 ER), 3 HR, 16 BB, 31 K

He's missing fewer bats this year, but that's otherwise extremely similar.

First off, has Beckett really abandoned his dominant stuff in favor of the cut fastball? No, not really. He's throwing the pitch about 8% of the time this year, compared to 5% of the time in 2009. That amounts to maybe 3 extra cutters a game - not exactly a smoking gun.

Secondly, the cutter isn't actually a bad offering for him (using GameDay's classifications here).

Run value per 100 thrown (from FanGraphs) '10: +5.80
Run value per 100 thrown (from FanGraphs) '09: +0.07

Whiff rate* '10: 17.4%
Whiff rate '09: 17.0%
RHP average '09: 16.7%

Swinging strike % '10: 12.1%
Swinging strike % '09: 10.1%
RHP average '09: 8.3%

SLG on ball in play '10: .000
SLG on ball in play '09: .563
RHP average '09: .486

* My convention is to use whiff rate as swings and misses over swings. I've seen it defined that way, as well as swings and misses over pitches thrown (which I'm referring to as swinging strike %). I feel that the former tells you more about the pitch and the latter more about the pitcher, but your mileage may vary.

That's right; the cutter that's supposedly causing all the trouble in 2010 hasn't resulted in a hit yet. He's missing bats with it at a decent clip, as he did last year. Looks like a fine addition to his repertoire.

The real change in approach for Beckett has been the increased use of the change-up, from just 2-3% of the time to 14% of the time. Additionally, it hasn't been a great pitch (-2.69 RV/100, below average 18.9% whiff rate, 11.6% swinging strike rate, .500 SLG on ball in play). Perhaps Bobby-V had the right idea, but identified the wrong pitch.