What If Lester and Beckett Were Still Good?

When the Red Sox lost three of four to the Twins this weekend, including two in a row as a result of late-inning blow-ups, any playoff hopes fans had clung to all spring probably evaporated. One could look back at so many factors that contributed to the demise of a team with one of the game’s best rosters- an absurd rash of injuries, an inconsistent bullpen, Nick Punto- but it seems to those of us who have been paying attention that underperformance by Jon Lester and Josh Beckett has sunk the Red Sox ship.

From 2008 to 2010 (and really going back to October of 2007), Lester was one of the best pitchers in the American League. He struck out nearly a batter an inning over that span, walked just over a batter every three innings, and gave up a stingy 48 home runs in 621 2/3 innings, finishing in the top ten in ERA each season.

In 2011, his strikeout rate dipped a bit (to 8.55/9 IP), he walked three and a half batters per nine, and he gave up nearly a home run per nine. That was still good for a 3.47 ERA, but not good enough to keep the team from losing in his last four starts during a September collapse.

This season has been much uglier in nearly every respect. His walks are actually down to a career low 2.68 per nine, but why would anyone want a walk when they can tee off on any of his pitches? His strikeouts are down 24% from his peak, despite strikeout rates skyrocketing league-wide. He’s allowed 18 home runs in just 134 innings, the worst full-season mark of his career. Opponents are batting .324 when they put the ball in play against Lester, and while we can often chalk that up to luck and bad defense, it’s obvious that hitters have been comfortable digging in against Lester, especially in July.

Josh Beckett’s decline has been less linear than Lester’s. Since breaking through as a World Series hero in 2003, he’s essentially been excellent in odd years (his worst odd-year FIP is last year’s 3.57) and awful in even years (he’s only beaten that FIP once in an even year). The lone exception to this rule came last fall, when he came undone down the stretch, adding nearly half a point to his ERA, which had been close to the league lead all season.

This year, Beckett’s striking out almost three fewer hitters per nine innings than in his early-2000s peak, and two fewer than in his AL peak, shortly after joining the Red Sox. His other peripherals have held steady, but he seems to have lost the ability to strand runners, as 33.5% of men who have reached base against Beckett in 2012 have come around to score, compared to an even 20% last season. Again, we could chalk this up to bad luck, but no one has accused Beckett of being an offseason gym rat, and it’s very possible his poor conditioning is keeping him from staying healthy and pitching effectively deep into games.

What I can’t help but wonder, as I give up trying to convince friends and readers that the Sox have a big run left in them, is just how good this team could have been if Lester and Beckett were still pitching like they did in 2009. I realize that 2009 might not be a realistic expectation, as Lester and Beckett were 25 and 29, respectively, but I make the rules in this space, so deal with it.

There are several ways to go about measuring the impact of these two pitchers’ declines. I could assume fangraphs’ WAR accurately assesses a pitcher’s contribution to his team’s wins and losses, and replace the 4.6 WAR Lester and Beckett have earned this year with the 11.9 wins they earned in 2009. Add seven wins to the team’s total this year and they’re 61-48, three games behind New York and well ahead of the Wild Card pack.

If I use rWAR, which is based on run prevention, rather than fielding-independent outcomes (K/BB/HR), Lester and Beckett pick up 10 1/2 wins, enough to vault Boston into first place, with the best record in the American League.

If I wanted to stretch things a little further, I could attribute some of the clubhouse drama to Beckett’s surliness and Lester’s alleged mimicry of Beckett’s attitude and conditioning habits. The team has far underperformed its run differential, often folding offensively and defensively in the late innings of games when the bullpen blows a lead. If Beckett and Lester were trim and healthy and model citizens, would Kevin Youkilis still be on the team, crushing the ball like he has in Chicago? At this point last season, the Sox were 68-41, which would be the best record in baseball this season. Is it unreasonable to think this year’s team, with a very similar roster, couldn’t have the same record with two aces dominating every fifth day?

Rather than speculate about psychological variables, take a simple but scientific look at the issue. In 2009, Lester and Beckett had ERAs of 3.41 and 3.86, respectively. Scoring has decreased seven percent league-wide since then, but simply put, the Red Sox could expect to win most games when Lester and Beckett pitched and they scored at least four runs, and to lose if they scored three or fewer. This assumes even distribution of runs and relievers performing at the same rate, so it’s not perfect, of course, but again, I make the rules.

In 2012, Lester has started 22 games, and the team is 8-14 in those games. The team has scored four runs or more in 12 of those starts, so they could be four games better if Lester were consistently giving up fewer than four runs every time out.

The Red Sox have been similarly bad in Beckett’s starts, going 7-11. In contrast to Lester’s starts, the offense has only scored four runs seven times, so a full-run drop in Beckett’s ERA may not give the team another win.

A four-run swing would put the Red Sox in second place, but still a half game behind the Wild Card leaders. If we’re going to claim that underperformance from the two former aces is the only thing standing between the 2012 Red Sox and a potential World Series run, we have to attribute some of the team’s unwillingness to score runs on nights when Beckett pitches to the clubhouse malfeasance that has left so many fans calling for a trade or waiver (or catapult).

It’s easy to put too much emphasis on the decline of Lester and Beckett in explaining the decline of the Red Sox, but it’s certainly a leading factor. In Lester’s case, it’s undeniable that the team would be in better shape if he were still striking out batters and not giving up homers. In Beckett’s case, most of us can agree that the team would be easier to root for if he maintained more amicable relationships with management, fans, the media, and teammates. There may be little statistical evidence that Beckett is a part of the problem, but it’s hard to picture the team in this much turmoil if he had a 3.00 ERA.

I think the deeper question in all of this is just how much intangibles can derail a team from its full potential. There’s always talk about players like Jimmy Rollins in 2007 who deserve an MVP more than others with better numbers because of the catalytic effect they have on their teammates. I have a hard time believing that such intangibles are significant in comparing MVP-level players, who almost certainly make it easier for their teammates to come to the ballpark whether they give good quotes to the media or not.

The Red Sox clearly have the talent of a 90+ win team, have performed like an 85+ win team from a scoring/prevention standpoint, and have the record of an 80-win team. How much has clubhouse chemistry hindered the team’s ability to win games in which they had a favorable pitching matchup and an early lead, but gave up a few runs and suddenly shut down all at once?

In a way, it’s comforting for fans, particularly fans of smaller-market teams, to know that winning baseball games, even over 162 games, comes down to more than quantifiable abilities. A team can’t buy 60 WAR worth of talent and assume they’ll win over 100 games and their division. Those 60 WAR have to belong to players who stay healthy, fit well within their roles, cover all facets of the game, and get together well enough to compete day in and day out for almost six months.

Of course, this is less comforting for Ben Cherington and the Red Sox.

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