Josh Beckett and Dan Haren: Old Faces Becoming New Dodgers' Aces?
Coming off an NLCS appearance and armed with a league-leading payroll at $235 million – one of only two teams with a payroll exceeding $200 million – the Dodgers are prime World Series contenders. Things have certainly started out that way. The Dodgers currently have a 22-19 record, and a more impressive run differential of +13. Only three other National League teams have a better figure.
Obviously a strong offense has a lot to do with that. Last season the Dodgers were eighth in the majors with a weighted runs created plus (wRC+) of 104, and this season they’re fifth at 105.
But last year they also had the best starting pitching in baseball, with a league-leading staff ERA of 3.13. Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw had a lot to do with that, but he wasn’t alone. Hyun-Jin Ryu added 30 starts and a 3.00 ERA, Zack Greinke had 28 starts and a 2.63 ERA, and Ricky Nolasco had 15 starts for the Dodgers after a mid-season trade with the Miami Marlins. He had a 3.56 ERA, and Chris Capuano had 20 starts with a 4.46 ERA.
In the offseason, Nolasco and Capuano left. Nolasco received a four-year $49 million contract from the Minnesota Twins and Capuano signed a one-year deal with the Boston Red Sox. To make matters worse, Kershaw started the season on the DL. Simply put, the Dodgers were going to need to get major innings from other sources.
In come Josh Beckett and Dan Haren. Haren was a high-upside signing made in the offseason. He was a top of the rotation pitcher for the Oakland A’s and Arizona Diamondbacks before struggling with the Los Angeles Angels, and flaming out with the Washington Nationals last season.
In 30 starts for the Nationals, Haren had a 4.67 ERA thanks to diminishing groundball rates that dropped to 36 percent. With the increase in flyballs, more balls found the stands against Haren. His 1.49 HR/9 was the highest number of his career.
Beckett was acquired in a blockbuster trade with the Red Sox, though his inclusion was more a salary dump for the Red Sox than a major get for the Dodgers - first baseman Adrian Gonzalez was the true prize of that trade. Last season, in just 43.1 innings for the Dodgers, Beckett posted a 5.19 ERA. In fact, Beckett had an ERA over 4.5 in three of the last four years.
But this season, the two have combined for 92 innings, and both have an ERA below 3.00. So have these former aces turned back the clock, or are they benefitting from a small sample size?
The numbers look good for Haren, especially as his FIP of 2.96 is right around his ERA of 2.84. More importantly, his BABIP is a reasonable .298 even with a LD% of 21.3 percent, slightly higher than his career average of 20.1 percent.
What’s helping Haren is improved groundball numbers. While his strikeout rate has dropped from 21.1 percent last season to 17.9 percent this season, his groundball rate has jumped up to 48.1 percent. That’s led to a drop in home run numbers too, with Haren only giving up 0.53 HR/9. His HR/FB rate of 6.1 percent means those numbers might creep up, but probably not a significant amount.
Beckett is a bit on the other end of the spectrum. His FIP of 3.96 means we’ll probably see his ERA rise from its current number of 2.38.
He’s had a supremely lucky BABIP of .226 that’s helped him strand runners at a LOB% of 84.6 percent. That’s even with a BB/9 of 3.24, which is his highest rate since 2006.
It’s possible, like Haren, that an increased GB% – up to 46.3 percent from 39.1 in 2013 – is what's led to those numbers, but he’s posted similar groundball rates in his career without the same positive effect on his BABIP and LOB%:
Basically, even with improved groundball rates, there's no reason to think he’ll continue to strand runners at his current rate, or keep hitters to the same low .192 average they’ve been hitting against him so far this season.
There is one silver lining for those hoping Beckett can remain an integral part of the rotation though.
So far this season, batters have a LD% of 16.7 percent against Beckett. That means he’s been inducing weak contact, which is supported by his increased groundball numbers. Those numbers generally aren’t the result of luck. The last time Beckett had similar line drive numbers was in 2011, where he had a 2.89 ERA in 193 innings.
The Dodgers have remade the back-end of their rotation on the fly from last season. They have two big high upside risks in Haren and Beckett. So far that risk is paying off. With the recent return of Kershaw, the Dodgers could have four aces to throw at opponents come October.