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Waiting for Beckett

Five pitchers who could make a big jump in 2008

Posted: Tuesday March 11, 2008 11:43AM; Updated: Wednesday March 12, 2008 8:58AM
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Josh Beckett
Josh Beckett posted his first 20-win season in 2007, then followed it up by going 4-0 with a 1.20 ERA in the postseason.
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Much went right for the 2007 Boston Red Sox. They avoided major injuries, received important contributions from rookies at second base (Dustin Pedroia) and center field (Jacoby Ellsbury), and watched their third baseman (Mike Lowell) put up a career year.

But the single most important breakthrough for Boston was the step forward by Josh Beckett. Nothing like finding a legit ace, a 20-game winner, in the kitchen cupboard.

Beckett didn't come out of nowhere. He was the World Series MVP with the Marlins in 2003, and he did win 16 games in 2006, albeit with a 5.01 ERA. But in a season in which Boston became the first Red Sox team in history to cut its runs allowed by more than a full run per game, Beckett accounted for 26 percent of that improvement. He allowed 76 runs, down from 120.

It all began with a simple challenge for himself: he wanted to cut his walks in half. He nearly did, too, reducing them from 74 to 40. He followed that with such a spectacular postseason that he became the quick answer to a favorite parlor game: if you had one game you needed to win, who would you choose to start?

Now we are at the time of year when the 29 other teams are playing the same game: waiting for Beckett, or at least their own version of the 20-game winner in their midst. Here are five pitchers who could be the next Beckett: pitchers who could step up with 20 wins, and if they do, their teams just might win the last game played this year.

1. Felix Hernandez, Mariners. He's younger than Yankees phenom Joba Chamberlain, but he already has made 73 big-league starts -- more than Justin Verlander. Hernandez, 21, is still learning how to pitch, which is scary for a kid with a career 3-to-1 strikeout-to-walk rate.

"One thing we've talked about a lot this spring is using his fastball more," Seattle pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre said. "He's got such a good one, but at times he wants to show his other pitches. He's on board with it.

"The other thing we're concentrating on is putting hitters away. Part of learning how to use your stuff is learning how to finish off hitters. The great part about Felix is that he loves to work and he loves to learn."

Last season, for instance, Hernandez allowed hitters a .561 OPS after jumping ahead 0-and-2, significantly worse than the league average of .473. That shouldn't happen with his stuff.

Still, let's not forget how special this kid is just because the expectations were so high. In an under-the-radar season last year, Hernandez still won 14 games and struck out 165 batters -- only 15 other pitchers in history were so accomplished at such a young age, among them Christy Mathewson, Babe Ruth and Bob Feller. Only three other pitchers did it in the past 30 years and every one of them went on to win a Cy Young Award: Fernando Valenzuela, Dwight Gooden and C.C. Sabathia. It's only a matter of time before King Felix claims one of his own.

2. Daisuke Matsuzaka, Red Sox. Matsuzaka surprised the Red Sox by reporting to camp heavier than last year. He explained that he enjoyed his best seasons in Japan when he carried more weight. Perhaps Matsuzaka also is better prepared for the grind of the longer major league campaign, which took its toll on the right-hander over the final two months of last season.

Like Hernandez, Matsuzaka was underappreciated last year because the expectations were so high. He did win 15 games and strike out more than 200 batters. Only four other pitchers did that in their first year: Gooden, Mark Langston, Herb Score and Grover Cleveland Alexander. Still, Matsuzaka lacked a certain polish you'd expect from someone with his pro experience.

Boston pitching coach John Farrell said Matsuzaka needs to improve on his aggressiveness, especially when it comes to running the ball inside on right-handers and, like Hernandez, finishing off hitters in two-strike counts.

Matsuzaka was especially poor in full counts. He walked 15.7 percent of hitters in full counts, worse than the league average of 12.6 percent. And hitters batted .247 against him at 3-and-2, again leaving him worse than the league average (.232). There's nothing wrong with Matsuzaka's stuff. If he fine tunes his approach with that year of experience to learn from, five more wins is not out of the question.

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