For some reason, I was really surprised when I learned that Josh Beckett’s no-hitter against the Phillies was the first of his career. I was sure that he’d thrown one at some point for the Marlins. That realization got me to thinking about Beckett, the nature of his career, and the nature of pitching prospects in general quite a bit.
Beckett, you probably remember, was a highly touted high schooler picked second overall by the Marlins in the Two Josh Draft of 1999. By 2002, he was Baseball America’s best prospect. In 2003, he followed up an extremely promising regular season with total dominance in the playoffs, pitching complete game shutouts in both Game 5 of the NLCS and the decisive Game 6 of that year’s World Series. He looked from all-sides like a budding all-time great.
The thing is, it never really happened after that. I don’t want to make it seem like I’m demeaning Beckett’s career at all here, because it’s been an awfully good one. It’s just that outside of a couple of years of real dominance in Boston (definitely 2007 and arguably 2008), he never really made the leap to the “next level” that everyone had anticipated for him since 2003. He’s had various injury problems here and there and he’s had good years and he’s had bad years and he’s almost always been a solid upper-rotation sort of guy, he’s just never been The Guy.
The thing that really catches my attention from all of this is that that still makes him (arguably) the second best pitcher ever picked with one of the first two picks in the draft behind Justin Verlander. And you can see where this is headed now, because as much as Andrew McCutchen has turned into an annual MVP candidate (he’s now the type of player that shows up at the top of All-Star balloting by sheer force of ability, which is just thrilling to me even as someone that thinks that much of the hype around the All-Star Game is dumb) and as much as Gregory Polanco has blossomed in the last two years as a prospect, I think that much of the Pirates’ future is still tied up in Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon. We, as Pirate fans, have this tendency to believe that pitching prospects will either become aces like Verlander or mediocrities like Kris Benson, but there’s an ambiguous middle ground in between those two, and that’s where Beckett falls. Sometimes, a pitcher never quite becomes the pitcher you think he’ll be when he’s 23. Sometimes, he’ll never be as good as he was when he was 23. There’s not always a reason for it and it’s not always someone’s fault; that’s just how it works sometimes.
Anyway, the reason I’m thinking about all of this now is because Beckett is facing the Pirates tonight in his first start since the no-hitter. He’s made some rough starts this year and has occasionally had home run problems, but he’s generally looked as good as he has in quite some time in the early goings of 2014. He’ll face Francisco Liriano, who seemed like he was almost back on track two weeks ago, but who is now coming off of two really bad starts against the Orioles and Nationals and who will presumably start hearing some footsteps from Jeff Locke and Casey Sadler and Vance Worley if he can’t get his act together soon.
As good as Beckett’s been at times this year, this strikes me as maybe the Pirates’ second best chance at a win in this series since Beckett isn’t Ryu or Greinke and Liriano’s got a better chance at making a really great start than Brandon Cumpton or Edinson Volquez. A win tonight to ensure a split before the pitching mismatches waiting in the next two games would be a really good thing for the Pirates.
First pitch tonight is at 10:10.