Okay, so it might become a Celebrity No-Decision Match. Or an OMG I Can't Believe Both of These Guys Suck Tonight Match. With two of Major League Baseball's best pitchers facing off tonight in Philadelphia -- and literally facing each other once or twice, probably, since the game's going by National League rules -- this seems like a good time to take the measures of both Josh Beckett and Cliff Lee.
For his part, Beckett currently leads the American League with a 1.86 ERA. This would be surprising enough if Beckett were not coming immediately off a season in which he racked up a 5.78 ERA. But he were (or are, or is, or whatever says yes that's what happened).
Plagued last season by a back injury that cost him a dozen or so starts and the ability to throw his curveball effectively, Beckett was also terribly unlucky, giving up a .342 batting average on balls in play.
This year he's been both healthy and terribly lucky, which is basically the only recipe for a sub-2.00 ERA in late June. Beckett's health and all of his pitches are back, plus he's given up a .217 BABiP, which of course is just absurdly low; his career mark is .294.*
* And in case you're wondering what great pitchers do, Roy Halladay's career number is also .294, CC Sabathia's .292, Verlander's .290. This is just what even the great pitchers do, .290-.300.)
One more huge key to Beckett's ERA: He's giving up only four home runs in 92 innings.
Beckett's strikeout and walk rates are perfectly normal (for him), while his BABiP and home-run rate are crazy low. You probably know where all this leads, but just in case ... Josh Beckett probably is not a fundamentally different pitcher this year. He's still the same Josh Beckett we knew and loved before 2010, and he's going to finish the season with an ERA something like a run higher than what you see now.
Meanwhile, Cliff Lee's having an interesting season of his own. His walk rate's more than double what it was last season, but he's also striking out nine hitters per nine innings. That latter figure is less impressive than it seems -- and the former more worrying -- because Lee's in the National League now. He's still a great pitcher, but his 4.56 strikeout-to-walk ratio is down significantly from last season's 10.28, the all-time record for a pitcher with at least 200 innings.
Since establish himself as a great pitcher in 2008, Lee's struck out 5.4 times more than he's walked. So 4.56 doesn't seem particularly out of character, and might simply suggest that a) last season was a bizarre thing (which we already knew) and b) Lee might be slightly past his prime, though still an outstanding orb-hurler.
Chances are, they'll both pitch well tonight. But if Beckett's luck is going to change, it's as likely to change tonight as ever. And with David Ortiz out of the Red Sox lineup, I'm going to say Phillies 5, Red Sox 3.