Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Josh Beckett announced his retirement from Major League Baseball this week. Let's summarize his career, see what he was like as a prospect, and assess how he ranks historically.
Considered one of the best prep pitchers of his generation, Josh Beckett was the second-overall choice in the 1999 draft, selected by the Florida Marlins out of high school in Spring, Texas. He was clocked as high as 99 MPH as an amateur and showed a good breaking ball to go with all the heat, along with an ideally-athletic 6-4, 190 pound frame. He drew comparisons to other famous Texas products like Kerry Wood and Roger Clemens. He signed too late to pitch in 1999 and the Marlins had to give him a big league contract even to get that done.
2000 brought mixed results. On the field he was excellent, posting a 2.12 ERA with a 61/15 K/BB in 59 innings for Kane County in the Low-A Midwest League, allowing 45 hits. He didn't throw quite as hard in pro ball as he did in high school, working at 93-96 instead of the upper-90s, but the curve was terrific and his command was better than expected.
The negative was health: a sore elbow and a tender shoulder limited him to just 12 starts. He still rated as a Grade A entering 2001 and I had him ranked as the top pitching prospect in baseball, though with the warning that "even the best pitching prospect in baseball carries with him a significant risk of injury."
Fully healthy, Beckett took off in 2001. He began with a 1.23 ERA and a 101/15 K/BB in just 66 innings for High-A Brevard County in the Florida State League, followed by a 1.82 ERA with a 102/19 K/BB in 74 innings for Double-A Portland in the Eastern League. That's a 203/34 K/BB ratio. Promoted to the majors, he made four starts and remained strong with a 1.50 ERA and a 24/11 K/BB in 24 innings, allowing only 14 hits.
He still had the mid-90s heat and the excellent curve, but added a changeup, polished his command, and most importantly he stayed healthy. He was still the best pitching prospect in baseball entering 2002 and looked for all the world like a future superstar.
Beckett made 21 starts for the Marlins in 2002 and was decent enough, with a 1.7 fWAR and a 4.10 ERA, 98 ERA+, and a 113/44 K/BB in 108 innings. This was perhaps a little disappointing given all the hype but still very credible for a 22-year-old. He cut a full run off his ERA in '03 (3.04 ERA in 142 innings, 138 ERA+, 3.8 WAR) and was MVP of the World Series. At this point the main worry was durability. He was solid again in '04 and '05 then was traded to the Boston Red Sox as part of a salary dump.
You know how his career in Boston went. He had problems in '06 but in '07 he lived up to his potential with a 20-7 season, a 3.27 ERA, 145 ERA+, and a career-best 6.5 WAR. He was less effective but still solid in '08 and '09, was terrible in '10, rebounded with a very good year in '11 (career-best 149 ERA+), but slumped again in '12 and was finally shipped off to the Dodgers.
Beckett finished with a career record of 138-106, with a 3.88 ERA in 2052 innings, ERA+ 111, a 1901/629 K/BB ratio, and a career WAR of 39.0. Although truly outstanding at times, he was held back by nagging injuries and reached 200 innings "just" three times in his career, not fitting the stereotype of a true number one starter.
For historical rankings, Beckett's Sim Score comps (retired pitchers only) are Jason Schmidt, Mike Flanagan, Kevin Millwood, Dennis Leonard, Bruce Hurst, Rick Sutcliffe, Mike Boddicker, Mike Scott, and Curt Schilling. Beckett's 39.0 WAR ranks him near Mike Garcia (40.4 in 2175 innings), Noodles Hahn (39.7 in 2029), Dizzy Dean (38.2 in 1967), Don Newcombe (37.5 in 2155) Schmidt (37.5 in 1996), Dean Chance (37.0 in 2147) and Jim Maloney (37 in 1849).
Beckett didn't become Roger Clemens and will fall short of the Hall of Fame; he simply wasn't durable or consistent enough to rank among the historic greats. But he was very successful and effective at his peak, and every pitcher on both comp lists was capable of All-Star (even Cy Young Award) caliber performances at their best.
Beckett was a Grade A prospect who panned out.