On December 15, 2009, John Lackey signed a 5-year $82.5 million contract with the Boston Red Sox. The 31-year old native Texan joined a Red Sox rotation that already featured Josh Beckett and Jon Lester as a formidable 1-2 combination. The addition of the former Anaheim ace seemed a significant upgrade over the disastrous 2009 trio of John Smoltz, Paul Byrd, and Brad Penny. General Manager at the time, Theo Epstein, believed Lackey would help solidify the middle of a rotation that would feature a combination of Clay Buchholz, Daisuke Matsuzaka, and Tim Wakefield on the back end.
Lackey’s career to that point totaled over 100 wins and had a lifetime 3.81 ERA; both similar numbers to then “ace,” Josh Beckett. In addition, he was only two years removed from a 2007 campaign in which he won 19 games, sported a 3.01 ERA, scored a superb 6.0 WAR (Wins Above Replacement), and finished 3rd in the Cy Young voting. It seemed as though the renowned clutch playoff performer (see: 3.12 lifetime ERA and 2009 ALDS against your Boston Red Sox) gave the Red Sox three borderline number one starters. Expectations were high for Lackey, but, perhaps, they should have been tempered. It seems as though Epstein may have missed potential warning signs that pointed to continued regression for Lackey post-2007.
John Lackey’s 2007 mark of 19 wins stands as the only year in his career that he surpassed 14 wins in a season, and the only year his ERA dipped below 3.44. He followed up 2007 in 2008 with 12 wins and a 3.75 ERA (24 starts) and then 11 wins along with a 3.83 ERA in 2009 (27 starts). Now, I am not arguing that those are not solid numbers for a potential number 3 starter, but more telling was his dramatic decrease in quality starts, which dropped from 73% (2007) to 67% (2008) to 59% (2009). Yikes. That certainly is not what you want out of a number 3 that many, including myself, thought was a borderline ace. Sure, the Major League average for quality starts is 50%, but remember, keeping your team in the game 50% of the time is what a team like the Red Sox would ask out of a 5th starter, not a 3rd.
Another school of thought would be that in the 2009 offseason Epstein did not think that the Red Sox had a true ace (Career QS%: Beckett – 59% Lester – 58% versus CC Sabathia – 64% Jered Weaver – 68%) so he signed Lackey to give the Sox three top flight starters that could be relied on to win 15 games each. Either way, Red Sox Nation was hoping Lackey’s ERA regression would simply settle gently in the 3.80 range, which would give the Red Sox a very solid third starter. Well, we all know what happened next…
Due to the high expectations for Lackey his 2010 Red Sox season debut was a disappointment. Yes, he won a 14 games and pitched 215 innings, but his ERA continued to regress to an alarming 4.40. Yet, it got worse. In 2011, John “$82.5 million” Lackey submitted one of the worst pitching seasons in recent memory (how he did not make this list, I will never know). Despite miraculously, and I mean miraculously, winning 12 games Lackey posted a catastrophic 6.41 ERA along with only 32% of his starts considered quality. Need I say more?
Nevertheless, the 34-year old John Lackey makes his valiant return from Tommy John surgery this spring. What can Red Sox Nation expect? I would argue that we could expect Lackey to progress (now there is a word I have not used yet) back towards his career 4.10 ERA. How? Well, the Bleacher Report would argue that Lackey needs to use his fastball less: “Lackey was once the ace of the Los Angeles Angels, and there’s no reason to believe he wouldn’t be capable of replicating similar numbers in Boston in 2013. He needs to rely less on his fastball, which opponents had a .303 batting average against in 2011, and more on his slider and changeup, off which they hit .239 and .294, respectively.” I tend to disagree.
First off, pitchers of Lackey and Josh Beckett’s stature (“power pitchers”) need their fastball to survive. Prior to 2010, Lackey was striking out more than 7 batters per 9 innings. Lackey needs to use his fastball effectively to set up his off-speed pitches for success and to keep hitters off balance. Secondly, a .294 opponents batting average against Lackey’s changeup is not good; the average MLB hitter’s batting average is usually around .270. Thus, Lackey’s changeup is making the average hitter much better. If Lackey followed the Bleacher Report’s counsel big league hitters would begin to sit back and wait on his slider and changeup, which would further diminish the effectiveness of his fastball.
Instead, Lackey must figure out how to locate his fastball like he did in 2009. Observe the two fastball heat charts below, specifically the strike zone. In 2009, Lackey was able to keep 17.1% of his fastball strikes in the lower third of the zone, which is where a pitcher strives to locate. In 2011, Lackey only kept 12% of fastball strikes in the lower third. Unfortunately, much of that 5.1% discrepancy found itself in the upper third of Lackey’s zone in 2011 at an alarming 14.8%. In 2009, only 10.1% of Lackey’s strikes were in the upper third, which, as well all know, produced much better results. Even if Lackey has lost a bit of zip on his fastball he still needs to locate much better to be successful.
Therefore, if Lackey can regain his 2009 control of the bottom third of the strike zone, he will have a rebound season. In 2013, for the Red Sox to be successful, Lackey needs to be a quality 4th/5th starter behind Lester, Buchholz, and Dempster. I believe that when the 2013 season comes to a close we will see a line similar, but a bit better than 2010: 27 Starts, 13 Wins, 4.20 ERA, 60% Quality Starts, and a 6.9 SO/9. No, Lackey will never return to his 2007 form, but the 34-year old will, once again, be a quality starter in the Major Leagues. Wishful thinking? Maybe, but that is what makes it fun to be a fan.
Resources and Research done on www.baseballreference.com