The Boston Red Sox have provided their fans many unexpected surprises this season, but one of the biggest has been John Lackey’s emergence as the team’s most reliable starting pitcher.
Coming into the season, expectations for Lackey were low. He didn’t pitch last year because of injury. When he did pitch the year before, he was doing so with a shredded elbow, and was mostly atrocious and began to earn a reputation as perhaps one of the biggest free agent busts of the Red Sox boom years.
If you thought things looked bad for him then, they look equally good now. Not only has he pitched with a full bill of health for the first time in years, he’s also proved his worth in the rotation. Dare I say, he might even be able to live up to a substantial chunk of his monster 5 year, $82.5 million contract. It’s probably fair to say that if the playoffs started today, John Lackey’s probably starting game-1 – and that’s even if Clay Buchholz returns.
So what do we make of all this?
First off, we can start by throwing out his 7-10 W-L record because those are mostly worthless. Even if you did find them valuable, the truth beneath the surface is that Lackey simply doesn’t get any run support. With 3.43 runs per start (15th lowest in the Majors), Lackey has the lowest run support in the Red Sox rotation, with fellow starters Ryan Dempster (2nd in Majors in RS), Jon Lester (11th), and Felix Doubront (21st) all getting help from the lineup. Long story, short – he’s had some things working against him. Let’s not get caught up in W-L records.
Aside from the usual mong arguments, the most impressive feats from Lackey this season have been the way and manner in which he’s getting outs. Lackey has developed great command in his pitches, striking out 22.2 percent of all batters he has faced – up from 14.5 percent from 2011 – the highest mark for him since 2005. He’s also inducing more groundballs than every before – posting a 1.02 GB/FB ratio. Both of those developments are great. He’s striking batters out and when he’s not, they’re making very weak contact.
Finally, Lackey has been incredibly efficient and economical this year. On a pitching staff that has been taxed by throwing too many pitches (well over 18,000 for No. 1 in the league), Lackey gets his outs in a relatively quick and easy manner at 3.76 Pit/PA – lowest on the Sox rotation. What’s impressive about that stat is that he’s maintaining a relatively low Pit/PA while having one of his best strikeout years to date. This means he’s not pitching to contact and being aided by his defense – he’s getting outs on his own.
What has resulted in Lackey’s transformation?
Other than the fact that he’s healthy this year, the answer to that lies mostly within Lackey’s dominance against left-handed hitters. In 2011, lefties feasted on Lackey’s pitching with a slash line of .343/.401/.514. Lefties also had a BABIP of .383. Nearly anything that got wood fell in for a hit.
In 2013, Lackey has turned the tables against his left-handed foes. While his splits against righties are comparable to those from 2011 (in fact the slash line numbers are bit higher this year), lefties are completely lost against him, posting a measily slash line of .234/.287/.358.
Looking at Lackey’s pitching heat map against lefties, one notices how Lackey is getting plenty of outs off pitches at the lowest third of the strike zone. A lot of those outs come from breaking balls that make the hitter either whiff or hit the ball to the ground. Lackey has done a superb job executing this and this has translated into remarkable numbers such as his rotation leading 4.24 K/BB ratio. Whether Lackey’s success against lefties is sustainable is something that remains to be seen as the Red Sox hit the final stretch.
While conventional wisdom tells us that in the long run Lackey’s numbers against lefties will converge to his career averages at the least, our eyes should tell us that if Lackey continues his brilliant execution, his dominance will continue.