Big League Stew - MLB

The Stew goes through the quad and into the gymnasium to look at some of the hottest players in baseball and their chances of keeping it going.

Josh Beckett(notes), Boston Red Sox

The Naked Truth: 4-1, 1.69 ERA, 64 IP, 2.74 FIP, 0.95 WHIP, 2.90 K/BB

Having a nice little Saturday: Through 12 games, the Boston Red Sox were the worst team in baseball — they were 2-10, comfortably in last place, and the media was going into hysterics. Since then, they're 26-12, tied for first place in the toughest division in America, and looking like the juggernaut we all predicted they'd be. Their ace of the staff is a big reason why.

You're my boy, Blue!: Plenty of people were ready to make fun of the Red Sox for giving Beckett a $68 million extension at the beginning of an awful, injury-plagued campaign in 2010 in which he finished 6-6 with a 5.78 ERA over just 127 2/3 innings. But this year he's demonstrated why they felt he was worth the money.

Beckett gotten a bit lucky. First, his homer rates have dropped by half: just 4.1 percent of flyballs are going over the fence against him, compared to a career rate of 8.1 percent, and he's giving up just 0.4 homers per nine innings, compared to a career rate of 1.0. Those will probably rise closer to their usual levels before the season is out. Moreover, his BABIP is .235, 61 points lower than his career mark of .296, and that will certainly rise as well. Also, his strand rate (also known as left on base rate, the percentage of baserunners who are left on base at the end of the inning, without scoring) is a terrifically high 86.7 percent, well above his career average of 72 percent. That's why his FIP is more than a run higher than his ERA, and his xFIP is higher still at 3.30. Going by his components, it's easy to predict that he'll start allowing a few more runs than he has so far. But even if he does, he'll still be having a great year.

So why is Beckett better this year? Well, he's bettered his strikeout-to-walk ratio: while his walk rate has barely risen (from 7.8 percent to 8.2 percent of plate appearances), his strikeout rate has substantially risen (from 20.1 percent to 23.7 percent). Also, in every way that he's been lucky this year, allowing fewer homers and hits than you might otherwise expect, he was unlucky last year. His BABIP was 43 points higher than his career average, and he allowed 1.4 HR/9, well above the career rate of 1.0 that I mentioned above. His strand rate was just 65.3 percent. So some of this is just well-deserved regression to the mean for a pitcher who caught a lot of bad breaks in 2010.

Think KFC will still be open?: Josh Beckett has never finished a full season with an ERA under 3.00, let alone an ERA under 2.00, so it's inevitable that his ERA will creep higher some time after Memorial Day. But that doesn't mean he won't still be among the best pitchers in the league. He was an All-Star in 2007 and 2009, and even though he's been in the league for a long time — he won the Babe Ruth Award for the World Series MVP all the way back in 2003 — he's still just 31. He's a power pitcher with good control and a career K/BB over 3.0, and he plays for a team with a huge offense and unlimited payroll, so they'd love to give him a shot at another Babe Ruth Award. There's a reason the Sox showed him all that money.

What other players are currently streaking?

Jair Jurrjens(notes), Atlanta Braves 6-1, 1.56 ERA, 57 2/3 IP, 2.74 FIP, 1.02 WHIP, 3.67 K/BB
It's kind of weird, but five of the top six ERAs in baseball are owned by pitchers whose first names start with the letter "J." The best ERA in baseball is also owned by the pitcher with more J's in his name than anyone else, Atlanta's Jair Jurrjens — who also happens to be the second-best Curacaoan in baseball history, following former Braves star Andruw Jones(notes). (With three J's in his name, Jurrjens has been alone at the top of the J list since the return to Japan of Kenji Johjima(notes).) Jurrjens had a miserable 2010, pitching just 116 1/3 innings with a 4.64 ERA and missing nearly two months with a hamstring injury. This year, he's back with a vengeance. Featuring a power sinker he credits to Atlanta setup man Jonny Venters(notes), Jurrjens has cut his walks and home runs per nine innings by more than half. So even though he isn't striking out as many batters as usual, he's making up for it with stellar control — he's walking just 4.0 percent of batters, good for second in the National League, behind only Roy Halladay(notes) at 3.9 percent. He also isn't getting overly hit-lucky, as his BABIP is .270, just 17 points below his career average. He's never been this walk-averse before, so it remains to be seen whether he can continue to limit walks that effectively, but if he can keep throwing strikes there's a good chance he'll remain among the elite all year long.

Jaime Garcia(notes), St. Louis Cardinals 5-0, 1.93 ERA, 65 1/3 IP, 2.40 FIP, 1.03 WHIP, 4.38 K/BB
Last year, rookie Jaime Garcia seemingly came out of nowhere to be one of the best starters in the National League, and many people thought it was something of a fluke.

As Joe Pawlikowski wrote in Fangraphs:

If one thing is certain about Jaime Garcia, it's that he won't repeat the 2.70 ERA he produced in 2010. That's not to say he'll collapse, but rather that he set an unattainable precedent last year.

Now the analysts are changing their tune. Jonah Keri recently proclaimed that "Jaime Garcia is the New Adam Wainwright" and explained that Garcia's wicked cutter and terrific strikeout-to-walk ratio had allowed him to legitimately transform himself into one of the best starters in the league. As with Jurrjens, the key has been control: his 5.0 percent walk rate is seventh in the National League, and like Jurrjens, he isn't getting overly hit-lucky, as his .282 BABIP is just 11 points lower than the mark he posted last year. It's very possible that Garcia was a bit lucky last year, but this year, he's just been legitimately terrific.

James Shields(notes), Tampa Bay Rays 5-2, 2.00 ERA, 76 2/3 IP, 2.86 FIP, 0.93 WHIP, 4.87 K/BB
Big Game James had a 2010 almost as forgettable as Josh Beckett's, with a 5.18 ERA in 33 regular-season starts, as well as a bad night in October when he allowed four runs in 4 1/3 innings of ALDS Game Two, as the Rays were beaten by the Rangers. Shields may have just been tired, as his 853 innings from 2007 to 2010 was seventh in all of baseball. But the man is a horse. Since his 2006 callup, he's averaged nearly 6 2/3 innings per start in every start he's made, and he's averaging nearly 7 2/3 innings per start this year. Like Garcia and Jurrjens, his biggest improvement this year has been his walk rate, as his 5.1 percent walk rate is seventh in the American League. He's also greatly benefited from cutting his homer rate from 1.5 HR/9 to 0.8 HR/9; he led the AL with 34 taters last year, and he's third in all of baseball with 122 homers allowed since 2007. He is getting lucky -- his .253 BABIP is 54 points lower than his career average, his 7.6 percent HR/FB rate is 1.2 percent below his career average, and his 87 percent strand rate is 14.9 percent above his career average. But as his 2.86 FIP indicates, he's having a legitimately great campaign, not just getting lucky but truly dominating batters. Like Beckett, Shields' ERA is bound to rise a bit. But he'll still be one of the toughest matchups in the league, and he will look to lead his team to another great stretch run in the AL East.

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