Beckett and DIPS
FanGraphs makes an interesting point about Josh Beckett of the Boston Red Sox in terms of Defense Independent Pitching (DIPS). His xFIP (Fielding Independent Pitching), a number that takes into account strikeouts, walks, home runs and batted ball type rates is almost identical to last season's number:
I know it’s tempting to look at guys who have both high BABIPs and HR/FB rates simultaneously and assume that they must be doing something wrong that allows hitters to tee off on them with regularity. Last year, we had this same conversation about Dan Haren after the Diamondbacks got tired of a “too hittable” pitcher and shipped him to the Angels. At the time of the trade, Haren had a 3.19 xFIP, but his ERA was 4.60 thanks to a .336 BABIP and a 13.9% HR/FB rate. Upon arriving in Anaheim, those numbers immediately dropped, and have stayed below the league averages ever since.
Beckett (and Haren, and James Shields, and many of the other names on the list of guys we noted who were hit hard last year) are seeing dramatically different results this year than they did last year. In a few cases, they are pitching better, though the improvements aren’t anywhere close to the same scale as ERA would suggest. Beckett, though, looks to be almost exactly the same pitcher as he was a year ago, just now he’s on the other side of the results fence.
In the case of Beckett, this argument does not hold water. The big difference between Beckett in 2010 and 2011 can be see in the results on his fastball. In 2010, batters hit .311/.382/.536 on his fastball, good for a .392 wOBA. In 2011, those numbers are .203/.319/.294, a .287 wOBA. If this was a good luck streak and a bad luck streak, as FanGraphs suggest, then Beckett's fastballs should look the same in both years. That's not the case. The following mosaic shows three views of Josh's fastball, 2010 on the left, 2011 on the right. From top to bottom, the heat maps display location in the strike zone, spin, and movement across the plate. Click the graphic for a larger version:
The pitch location row clearly shows Beckett less wild in 2011 than in 2010. Note both graphs show the septum, a separation in density between the left and right halves of the plate. The septum is much more pronounced in 2011. The second row, the spin on the ball, clearly shows Josh is coming more over the top in 2011 than in 2010. Josh suffered through an injury in 2010, and you can imagine that injury made it more difficult to get on top of the ball. In addition, the smaller area of the spin in 2011 leads me to believe that Beckett is better at repeating his mechanics this season.
Finally, the third row shows that Josh delivers more lateral movement on his fastball this season. His fastball in 2010 came in fairly straight. That's not the case in 2011. It seems that the extra side spin on his fastball in 2010 was canceling out some of the lateral movement that we see in 2011.
To sum up, Beckett exhibited less control of a straighter fastball in 2010. Batters hit that pitch harder. Beckett's bad luck seemed more due to an injury hurting his mechanics that balls finding holes on good pitches.
DIPS is often right, as it was on Dan Haren. In the case of Beckett, however, there is reason to believe that his improvement is more than just regression to and past the mean. Sometimes pitchers make their own luck.