Friday, August 20, 2010


He’s just not that good. Not anymore.

As I write this Rex Sox pitcher Josh Beckett, arguably the staff ace entering the 2010 season, has started fourteen games and accrued an earned run average of 6.67.
Those startling numbers sent me on a search. And here is what I discovered: In the one hundred and ten year history of this franchise, of all the hundreds and hundreds of Red Sox pitchers that have taken the mound in a given season, guess how many have started as many as fourteen games and ended the season with an ERA higher than Josh Beckett’s 6.67?

Uh…. One – and just barely (more on him later).

Josh Beckett has not just been bad in 2010, he has been historically bad. Unbelievably bad. Mind-bogglingly bad. Hall of Shame bad. Horribly, awfully, painfully, even proctologically bad. I don’t think any pitcher in the history of baseball has ever pitched so much, so poorly, at such a high salary as Josh Beckett has in 2010. For all the wrong reasons it’s a season for the ages.

On the day he was drafted, a reporter for a Florida newspaper asked Beckett about fellow pitchers and Texas natives Nolan Ryan, Roger Clemens, and Kerry Wood. Responded Beckett “Yeah, I’m gonna be better than those guys.” At times that seemed possible, even likely.

But that was then. Forget 2003, and the way he beat the Yankees in the World’s Series while pitching for the Marlins, and 2007 when he won twenty and pitched the Red Sox to a championship.

We’re talking NOW, or more accurately, ever since the Red Sox broke their own rule about negotiating a contract during the season. In April Theo Epstein signed Beckett to a contract extension covering 2011 thru 2014 worth $68-million, a deal made before his previous contract, which ran thru this season, had even expired. Think they would like to re-visit that?

Since that time he has been so bad there are, really, no words in the dictionary to describe it. But there are in the Baseball Encyclopedia and on

How bad has Josh Beckett been? Using ERA and a minimum of fourteen starts as a measure, every other pitcher in Red Sox history - with one notable exception - has been NABAB - Not As Bad As Beckett. Matt Young in 1991? Sixteen Starts and a 5.18 ERA, but Not As Bad As Beckett. Danny Darwin in 1994? Thirteen starts and 6.30 - NABAB. Frank Castillo in 2002? NABAB. Ramon Martinez in 2000, Jerry Casale in 1960, Gordon Rhodes in 1935, Frank Heimach in 1926? You can look ‘em up, NABABs all. Even the immortal Joe Harris, who went 2-21 for the 1906 Red Sox, was NABAB – his ERA was a sparkling 3.52, a number Josh Beckett and Theo Epstein would both kill for. And the list goes on and on and on and on.

Somehow this historic achievement has gone unnoticed. In a season best defined by the disabled list it has been easy to overlook Beckett’s expressionless appearances on the mound. Then again, they’ve often been so brief he’s been easy to miss. The fact is even with all the injuries, if Josh Beckett was pitching like an average starting pitcher, rather than a historically bad one, the Red Sox would be making plans for October.

That’s not even the worst part. Because the Sox signed Beckett to an extension before his current contract had expired after putting up one of the worst seasons in Red Sox history, Josh Beckett will rewarded over the next four seasons by becoming the the highest paid pitcher in team history. Which genius thought that was a good idea? The Red Sox can only hope is that Beckett is hurt and his contract is somehow insured, because the only thing worse than a pitcher performing the way Beckett has thus far is a contract that guarantees he’ll be around for another four years no matter how poorly he pitches.

Yet there is still a faint glimmer of hope. Remember, there has been one Red Sox pitcher even worse than Josh Beckett. Like Beckett, he too enjoyed some early success that had everyone whispering “Hall of Fame.” Then one year he went 2-9 in fifteen starts with an ERA of 6.75.

The Sox sent him back to the minor leagues. And two years later he was pitching the way everyone thought Josh Beckett would be pitching this year.

You might remember him, because that guy who was the worst starting pitcher in Red Sox history, 2-9 with a 6.75 ERA in 2008, is now 14-5 with an ERA of 2.36.

His name is Clay Bucholz.

This column appears in the September edition of Boston baseball. Glenn Stout’s Fenway 1912, will appear in 2011. Baseball Heroes, the first title in his juvenile series “Good Sports,” will be available this fall.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Great, But Not Perfect

This October the late John Updike’s classic New Yorker profile of Ted Williams, “Hub Bids Kid Adieu,” turns fifty years old. Recently reissued in book form Updike’s essay is something of a Gilgamesh of literary baseball writing, right up there with Ernest L. Thayer’s Casey at the Bat and Ring Lardner’s epistolary You Know Me, Al.

Recently, while working on my upcoming book Fenway 1912, I had occasion to take close look Updike’s story. Despite its legitimate and deserving place in baseball’s verbal Hall of Fame, it is not flawless. There are, in fact, several factual issues that a neutral scorekeeper might note as errors in their scorebook, or at last send back to the author for some clarification.

I mention them here not to disparage Updike but to underscore how difficult it is to be one hundred percent accurate, to gauge the veracity of another’s reporting - even a reporter as elegant and thorough as Updike - or to render any scene with absolute precision. History, after all, is not black and white but more often flesh and blood and shades of gray.

In the first paragraph Updike writes that “I, and 10,453 others, had shown up primarily because this was the Red Sox's last home game of the season and therefore the last time in all eternity that their regular left fielder… would play in Boston.” True enough, for Ted did retire afterward and did not accompany the team on its final road trip to New York.

But on the morning of September 28, 1960 these facts were not all that widely known. Ted had said he was going to retire, and on September 26 the Sox had released a statement to that effect, but Ted had “retired” before only to change his mind. Many Sox fans and media members wondered if this retirement was genuine, which might explain the sparse crowd. During the 1954 season Williams said he would retire at the end of the year and did so. But once his divorce was finalized on May 11, 1955, Ted abruptly “unretired, signed a lucrative contract beyond the reach of his settlement, and returned the lineup May 23. That act of selfishness may well have cost the Sox a pennant, for without him the Sox were a pedestrian 15-21 in 1955. Yet after Williams returned the Sox went 65-35 in the next hundred games to draw to within three games of first place as late as September 7 before falling back.

The point is that when most fans went to the park on September 28, 1960, Williams’ retirement was hardly certain, and there is little evidence that those other 10,453 fans - almost 5,000 less than the average that year - attended primarily because of Ted. Otherwise meaningless late season games had drawn similar crowds.

Personally I have always wondered what would have happened had Ted popped up in that last at bat. Would his ego have allowed him to end his career so commonly? Or would he, have gone to New York in search of an exclamation point? Would Updike ‘s chronicle of the pop-up been published, or would he have followed Williams to New York hoping for a better ending? Or if Williams had chosen to play in New York anyway after hitting the home run, (Updike notes he learned of Williams’ decision not to go to New York from the radio on his car ride home) would Updike’s story have such lasting resonance? We will never know. It is a small point, but nevertheless Updike’s statement leaves an impression that is less than complete.

And then there is Updike on Fenway Park. He writes that Fenway’s “right field is one of the deepest in the American League, while its left field is the shortest; the high left-field wall, three hundred and fifteen feet from home plate along the foul line, virtually thrusts its surface at right-handed hitters.” Today we know that the distance down the left field line was never 315, but somewhat less, but one can hardly fault Updike for believing number painted on the wall. Yet there is some ambiguity in the claim that “its left field is the shortest,” because that was not true down the line, where Yankee Stadium, at 301 feet in 1960, was considerably shorter, as was Memorial Stadium in Baltimore at 309 feet, although the outfield area in both of those ballparks was considerably larger than that of Fenway Park. Somewhat curiously, Updike does not mention height of the wall, but in 1960 there was not the fetish about what we now call “the Green Monster” as there is now. Updike may not have known precisely how high the wall was.

Apart from the alliterative phrase “lyric little bandbox of a ballpark,” I have never much cared for the way Updike describes the rest of Fenway Park, finding it not only forced and arch but imprecise and in some ways misleading. I have no idea what he means by “the inside of an old-fashioned peeping-type Easter egg,” particularly on a day that was dank, dark and dreary, and I suspect few others do either. I have spent hours looking up images on Google in search of a picture that suggests his intent without success. But if Fenway Park reminded Updike of an Easter egg on that gray September day, that’s fine. When I first saw Fenway Park it reminded me of an abandoned warehouse.

I do, however, take issue with his notion that Fenway Park was “a compromise between Man's Euclidean determinations and Nature's beguiling irregularities.” Most subsequent readers, I think, take that as Updike’s way of saying that’s what happens when you try to fit a ball field onto a patch of land whose boundaries were determined by Nature – presumably herds of cows or sheep - whose pathways later evolved into Boston’ streets.

This common interpretation, is, unfortunately, thoroughly incorrect. The plot of land upon which Fenway Park sits was completely undeveloped before the ballpark was built. The parcel was shaped – as it is now – somewhat like a trapezoid, not due to any irregularities of nature, but because some surveyor planned it that way. Before the ballpark was built the weedy, undeveloped lot between Lansdowne, Jersey and Ipswich streets, as empty as the parking lot of the Burlington Mall at four in the morning, was supposed to be cut into five rectangular blocks. A new street - eventually named Van Ness – was laid out to give these proposed new streets right-angled corners.

Neither Nature nor any wandering cow conspired to create Fenway’s celebrated nooks and crannies. They are the result of “Man’s Euclidean determinations” intersecting with Man’s greed and beguiling desire to cram as many seats as possible into the space, and nothing else.

That may not be as elegantly put as Updike’s fifty-year old lyric little bandbox of a box score, but it is, nevertheless, more accurate.

[Note: Several years ago Globe columnist Alex Beam noticed another potential error in the essay, the probable misidentification of Pumpsie Greene as Willie Tasby.]

Fenway 1912 will appear next year, and the twentieth annual edition Glenn Stout’s The Best American Sports Writing, guest edited by Peter Gammons, will appear this fall. This column first appeared in Boston Baseball, August 2010, as "Great, But Not Perfect. Copyright Glenn Stout, 2010.