Should Francona Remove Lackey from the Rotation?

Gordon Edes of ESPN Boston has seen enough, and thinks it’s time to remove John Lackey from the Red Sox rotation.

“This has gone on long enough. Terry Francona has to yank John Lackey from the starting rotation.

Francona has a replacement on hand. His name is Alfredo Aceves, and while Francona understandably is reluctant to take Aceves out of a relief role in which he has served with distinction, it’s simply not fair to the rest of the team to keep running Lackey out there to have his head handed to him, every five days.”

While I see where Edes is going, I’m going to respectfully disagree.  As it currently stands, the rotation features Jon Lester, Lackey, Tim Wakefield, Andrew Miller, and Kyle Weiland.  It doesn’t exactly strike fear into the hearts of opponents, does it?  As disappointing as Lackey’s been, much of our frustration is based on the expectations we placed upon him because of his contract.  If we look strictly at the numbers, we can see he hasn’t been the worst of the five.  (I’m purposely leaving Lester off of this list.)

 

K%

BB%

HR/FB%

FIP

xFIP

John Lackey

14.5%

7.5%

10.6%

4.89

4.71

Tim Wakefield

12.9%

6.5%

10.2%

4.92

4.78

AnDrew Miller

14.7%

13.0%

12.7%

5.32

4.90

Kyle Weiland

6.5%

10.4%

4.8%

5.27

6.09

Based purely on the numbers, Lackey floats to the top of the list with Wakefield very close behind, if not virtually tied.  After that, there’s a big gap in performance before we get to either Miller or Weiland.  So is Edes really suggesting the Red Sox should go with Miller and Weiland over Lackey?  Let’s take a look at each option.

As Troy mentioned the other day, Miller has been maddeningly inconsistent since being promoted in mid-June.  His Daisuke Matsuzaka-esque theatrics have done little to instill confidence in the 26 year old lefty.  Through September 8th, he’s produced an unappetizing 5.32 FIP to go along with a frightening 43/38 K/BB ratio in 61-1/3 innings.  Even more terrifying have been his lefty/righty splits. 

 

K%

BB%

HR/FB%

BAA

FIP

vs. LHH

27.0%

8.1%

11.8%

.309

2.46

vs. RHH

10.5%

14.1%

8.7%

.288

6.33

While Miller’s dominated lefties, he’s struggled mightily against righties.  Interestingly enough, his struggles stem from poor command/control; not his ability to avoid home runs or produce outs on balls put into play.  Even still, it’s very difficult for a left-handed starting pitcher to maintain a consistent track record of success when he racks up more walks than strikeouts against RHH.  Until he demonstrates marked improvement in his command, it makes little sense for Terry Francona to send him out the mound every five days.  While I abhor overly specialized bullpen roles, the Red Sox are deficient in relievers that consistently shut down lefties.  Considering his extreme platoon splits, he could ideally fill the role of LOOGY for the remainder of the season and postseason. 

As for Weiland, his issues stem primarily from adjusting to life in the major leagues.  After putting together an excellent season for AAA Pawtucket (3.72 FIP, 126/55 K/BB ratio), he’s done what so many pitching prospects before him have done upon being promoted–nibble at the corners and fail to put hitters away.  Through three starts, he’s struck out only 6.4% of the batters he’s faced, and much of this is due to his repertoire lacking a plus-secondary pitch.  Although he may make the appopriate adjustments to remain a starting pitcher over time, that likely won’t occur this season.  In lieu of better options, namely Aceves, it’s probably best for the Red Sox to move him into the bullpen where he has a much better shot of pitching effectively.

So while we’ve established Lackey’s superiority over Miller and Weiland, I’m not sure Edes is really suggesting they’re more deserving of spots in the rotation.  With Josh Beckett and Erik Bedard about to rejoin the rotation, it’s pretty obvious to everyone that Miller and Weiland will be the first ones relegated to bullpen duty.  At that point, the rotation will look something like this:  Lester, Beckett, Bedard, Lackey, and Wakefield.  Does Lackey deserve to be replaced by Aceves?  Or should it be Wakefield? Let’s compare the there pitchers side-by-side.

 

K%

BB%

HR/FB%

FIP

xFIP

John Lackey

14.5%

7.5%

10.6%

4.89

4.71

Tim Wakefield

12.9%

6.5%

10.2%

4.92

4.78

Alfredo Aceves        (as a starter only)

13.1%

13.1%

0.0%

4.36

6.31

Admitedly, Aveces’s numbers as a starting pitcher are based on a much smaller sample (21 innings, 99 batters faced) than either of his two counterparts.  In fact, the sample is probably too small to make reliable inferences from; all this despite K% and BB% having a low stablization rate.  Still, that’s not to say they’re entirely meaningless.  While his rates are much more favorable (17% K rate, 8% BB rate) out of the bullpen, it’s unreasonable to assume he’ll achieve the same results in the rotation over a larger sample.  The rigors of starting are far more intense than relieving.  Without being able to sustain the same energy and velocity, it’s only natural to assume his K/BB ratio will shrink upon enduring longer appearances.  Though his true talent level as a starting pitcher with respect to K/BB ratio is likely better than 1:1, it’s probably not much better than 1.5:1.  Furthermore, with increased exposure in the rotation, Aceves is unlikely to retain his tidy 0.64 HR/9  rate.  All of these factors combined will push his FIP close to the 5.00 range where Lackey and Wakefield currently reside. 

Knowing what we know (at least through reasonable projections), it doesn’t make sense to make a move now.  With a three game lead in the Wild Card with 16 games remaining (including seven against the hapless Orioles), the Red Sox’s lead is pretty secure (albeit not ironclad).  Making a switch now is unlikely to have a measurable effect on the end of season outcome.  It might feel good to switch out Aceves for Lackey or Wakefield, but you’ll essentially get the same production out of all three regardless of who is in the rotation.  It’s a zero sum game.   I do agree with Edes on one thing though.  Aceves is a perferrable option to either Miller or Weiland at this point.  Unfortunately, Francona didn’t come to the same conclusion.  That’s the benefit to hindsight, I suppose.

What are your thoughts?  Should Francona swap Lackey for Aceves upon the return of Beckett and Bedard?  Or maybe Wakefield for Aceves?  Or do you have other ideas?  Share your thoughts in the comments section provided below.

Categories: Boston Red Sox John Lackey Tim Wakefield

After being slapped with a restraining order for stealing Nick Cafardo's mail, I was forced into retirement for a brief period of time. As fun as it was to lounge around the community pool and play shuffleboard with noted internet columnist, Murray Chass, I quickly felt a yearning to write again. Now in my second tenure with Fire Brand, I have set lofty goals of achieving world domination, ending the plight of the hipsters, and becoming BFFs with Mike Trout. I am fluent in two languages (Sarcasm and English, in that order); have an intimate relationship with M&Ms; firmly believe that Lucille is the best character on Arrested Development; and spend my spare time trolling select members of the Boston media. You can follow me on Twitter @Chip_Buck.

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