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Will the real Josh Beckett please stand up?

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  July 23, 2010 11:03 AM

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300beckett.jpgAs Josh Beckett returns to the Red Sox tonight, maybe it’s time to ask some questions: How long will he be here? And how effective will he really be?

In recent years, after all, the reality has not lived up to the hype.

Two months removed from an injury that has sidelined him for the better part of this season, Beckett will take the mound against the Seattle Mariners at Safeco Field with his future again secure. He has yet to even begin a relatively new four-year, $68 million contract extension that kicks in next season and will make him the highest-paid player on the team. And yet, there is now as much reason as ever to question exactly who Beckett is and what he can give the Red Sox, a team currently scrambling to survive and that needs him to be in peak form as quickly as possible.

Let’s examine the facts here. Since the All-Star break of 2008 – a span that now covers more than two years - Beckett (21-12, 4.41 ERA) essentially has given the Red Sox roughly the same output as Daisuke Matsuzaka (20-11, 4.17 ERA). His place in the hierarchy of major league pitchers has suffered accordingly. During that span, there are 55 major league pitchers who have won more games than Beckett, 65 who have thrown more innings, 76 who have started more games. Including Beckett, among the 66 major league pitchers who have thrown at least 320 innings during that stretch, he ranks 49th in ERA.

The point is that Beckett is no longer the ace of the Boston staff; that title indisputably belongs to Jon Lester. And if the last years are any kind of prelude, it may soon be time to wonder whether Beckett ever again will be.

The Red Sox need him badly over the balance of this season.

And Beckett suddenly has a great deal to prove.

A former first-round selection of the Florida Marlins and No. 2 overall pick of the 1999 draft with a considerable postseason resume, Beckett forever will hold a hallowed place in baseball history. At 23, as a member of the Marlins, he was the Most Valuable Player of the 2003 World Series. In 2007, a 27-year-old Beckett backboned the Red Sox to his second world title with an October for the ages. But Beckett is now 30, a birthday he celebrated this year on May 15, three days before he went out and allowed five hits and five runs in 4.2 innings of an eventual 7-6 Red Sox win over the New York Yankees.

Beckett hasn’t pitched since as the result of an injury, the latest in a succession of ailments that have at least temporarily derailed his career and prompted more questions about him than answers.

For all of the energy we often spend on baseball in Boston, the game is often simpler than we can make it out to be. Starting pitching, for example, really comes down to two things. Effectiveness and durability are attributes that can independently earn a pitcher millions of dollars annually, and a combination of the two can produce greatness. But take one or the other away and you are left with relative mediocrity, albeit in a job classification that exceptionally well-paying.

See what we’re getting at here? At some point, we can’t attribute Beckett’s problems to injury. Eventually, the injuries become part of who he is, like Rich Harden or Ben Sheets. Beckett is starting to slip into that netherworld of unfulfilled potential, though there is plenty of time for him to reverse course and reclaim the greatness for which he seemed destined.

Seriously, how many more pitfalls can there be? In 208, Beckett had an early-season back problems and later missed time with nerve irritation in his elbow. By the time the playoffs rolled around, he had an oblique strain. The Beckett of 2009 made all of his turns and pitched a career-high 212.1 innings, but he posted a 6.02 ERA over the final quarter of the season before losing to the Los Angeles Angels in Game 2 of the playoffs. Then came this year and an additional eight starts during which Beckett has gone 1-1 with a 7.29 ERA before another trip to the disabled list.

Since last Aug. 1, Beckett is 4-3 with a 6.59 ERA. Were that the only worrisome stretch of his Boston career, we could chalk it up to the law of averages. But the bottom line is that Beckett is now pitching his fifth season in Boston and has really had only one year in which he has been both effective and durable, that being the 2007 campaign during which he was a legitimate, bona fide ace and big game hunter who finished second in the Cy Young Award balloting. Every other Beckett season has been disrupted by a significant of injury or ineffectiveness, including 2009, when Beckett’s late-season fade prompted questions about his durability despite a 17-6 record and 3.86 ERA.

Remember: wins can be a dangerous way to evaluate a pitcher because, more than anything, wins are a team statistic. During his five seasons in Boston, Beckett has had the best run support on the Red Sox and the fourth-best run support in baseball among all qualifying pitchers. Matsuzaka is fifth.

So what does all of this mean? It means Beckett’s legacy in Boston is now at stake. The brilliance of 2007 never will be forgotten – nor should it be – but Beckett’s bouts with injuries and ineffectiveness have counterbalanced his achievements. The Red Sox are relying on him again now. They have invested in him going forward. Beckett has seen highs and lows during his Red Sox career, but he has failed to settle on a cruising altitude that has kept him closer to the former than the latter.

Today, consequently, he rests in the relatively disappointing middle.

Where he goes from here undoubtedly will have a lasting impression.

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Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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