What can the Red Sox expect from John Lackey?

Hunter Golden takes a look at John Lackey and ponders the impossible: Could he actually be good this year?

It’s amazing how 4-5 innings of really good baseball can change people’s perceptions of a player. Last Friday, people were cautiously optimistic about John Lackey’s prospects for a bounce back season in 2013. By Saturday, they were teased with a glimpse of the Lackey of old after an outstanding performance against a strong Toronto Blue Jays lineup, only to have that glimpse fade into abject panic when his arm pulled up lame in the fifth inning, leaving many wondering whether we’d ever see him pitch for the Boston Red Sox again.

One day, one MRI and lots of good news later, it’s been revealed that Lackey merely suffered a biceps strain, meaning that a return to the rotation is highly likely within the next few weeks. His 8K, 5H demolition of the Blue Jays has piqued some interest, with many being surprised that he might have anything left in the tank at all.

And truth be told, that view is a fair position to take. Lackey’s been awful since he’s been in Boston, turning both the player and the contract into a not so quiet symbol of all that’s gone wrong here the past 2-3 seasons. But what the future holds – is quite a different story – a story that’s relatively easy to uncover once you peel back the layers of the last few years of poor performance.

Once you take a deeper look, not only does a John Lackey bounce back look possible – it looks likely.

Distractions

In some ways, I really wonder to what degree people realize just HOW routine oriented pitchers are and how background noise can make a mess of things quickly. Since Lackey’s arrival in Boston in 2010, things have been pretty loud. First there was his wife’s miscarriage. Then there were the unmet expectations behind his contract. Then there was his wife’s cancer diagnosis. Then there was his divorce. Finally, there was the snowball effect, with three of those four incidents creating more media criticism, more negative attention from the fans and more defensive posturing on his part. Let’s just call it what it was: a mess.

And oh yeah, he also had to pitch. “Everything thing in my life sucks right now” seems like the biggest understatement, ever.

Pitching? Training? Keeping healthy? Sure, we’re talking about a paid professional here who in a perfect world would be able to shrug everything off, post a 2.00 SIERA, 400 IP a season and throw with a spear sticking out of his chest. But this is not a perfect world and distractions matter, especially for personalities like John Lackey. It’s safe to say, his head probably wasn’t where it could have been.

With no distractions, personal issues in the rearview and major injuries settled, it’s safe to say there’s not a lot of negativity surrounding Lackey these days- and that’s a good thing. Finally, he’ll be able to focus on staying healthy, staying in shape and most of all – pitching his face off.

Health

For the first time since 2007 – five years ago – Lackey is coming into a season (almost – thanks, bicep) fully healthy and in peak physical condition. In 2008, he missed the first few weeks of the season with arm soreness. In 2009, he again opened the season on the DL with an elbow strain of which he never fully recovered from. By the time 2011 rolled around, Lackey was milking cortisone shots in that very same elbow all year before it finally gave out. With Lackey only feeling comfortable for a period of time (late 2011) during his stint in Boston, it’s safe to say that his health has been a significant factor in his poor performance over the past few seasons. Now granted, I’m not expert on baseball wagering strategy nor would I make a wager on MLB (if I was, I’d go to wageronsports.com); but if I was, being healthy may be the biggest reason to have a bullish outlook on 2013.

With a (mostly) clean bill of health and a major bullet dodged with his biceps strain, there’s no reason to think Lackey can’t regain some of his old form. If he does, the Red Sox rotation could rise from the ranks of the middling to becoming a very good one.

Expectations

Is it realistic to expect Lackey to be the same pitcher who threw 224 IP and a 3.54 FIP in 2007? Of course not. But a 3.70-4.00 FIP isn’t out of the question. In fact, that already happened not too long ago in 2010 with a sore elbow and personal troubles in tow.

Despite being branded as a complete bust, Lackey had an OK year. A poor first half where he posted a measly 5.4 K/9 and struggled with command of his secondary pitches hurt him. On the other hand, his second half managed to salvage his season as he upped his K/9 to 7.8 and drastically lowered both his K/BB and his OPS against.

The result was a perfectly acceptable 3.85 FIP that saw improvement in his peripherals across the board. Lackey managed to lower his LD% in addition to increasing both his GB% and IFFB%. By the time he heated up in the second half, he was striking out around 20% of the batters he faced – much more in line with his career norms.

To make matters more interesting, Lackey did this in spite of being on the wrong side of the coin with regards to his luck. Not only did he post the lowest strand rate of his career (69.3%), but he also posted his second highest BABIP to that point (.319). When mixing in the positive peripherals, luck regression and presumed health, Lackey seemed like a prime bounce back candidate in 2011. Alas, the elbow injury, Tommy John and here we are.

Long story, short – it’s really not out of the realm of expectations to think that Lackey can be a solid, if not slightly good Major League pitcher again because he was one not too long ago when he was (mostly) healthy. With a clean slate, few distractions and non-injury statistics that were trending fairly consistent with career norms, placing a bet that Lackey can be valuable in 2013 is a strong one.

Categories: John Lackey Tommy John

A world-class baseball nerd, baseball fan, and baseball man, Hunter Golden agreed to terms with Fire Brand of the American League in September of 2012 in exchange for an oversized baby bottle, football helmet filled with cottage cheese and naked pictures of Bea Arthur. In January of 2013, he was named Editor. He likes run-on sentences, enjoys over-using hyphens, and smelling books. When it comes to serious stuff, Hunter is a professional writer (no, really), father of two, Husband of one and whose natural habitat is Western Massachusetts and agreeable parts of Connecticut. Follow him at @hunterGbaseball on Twitter or shoot him an email at [email protected]

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