When the 2013 season began, most of us, including myself, were looking to the pitching staff to have a good bounce-back year. We looked at the stalwarts of the starters, Jon Lester & Clay Buchholz, and expected them to be their solid selves once more, leading the Red Sox back to at least some sort of goodness with their results. The bullpen, now with high-five-powered Koji Uehara & a healthy Andrew Bailey, was projected to be much better, and would be the designated door slammers on whichever team was unfortunate enough to be losing by the time the starters were yanked from the game.

And voila! A plethora of pitching appeared! Buchholz was so dominating out of the gates, it caused certain announcers to think he was cheating. Lester’s peripherals didn’t lie and a rebound occurred, and although he’s not striking out as much, his performance is still much better than last season. Even Ryan Dempster got in on the fun – he’s striking out a ridiculous 10.83 batters per nine innings. The bullpen, aside from some disappointments from Joel Hanrahan, has been solid.

For now, however, let’s just focus on the starters. Obviously, Clay Buchholz has been sublime, with a 2.51 FIP and a strikeout rate over nine. Going by FIP, you’d expect to see Jon Lester as the second-best in the rotation. But, boy, are you wrong.

By FIP, and even by xFIP, the number-two starter via performance in the rotation has been John Lackey.

And it’s not all that close either:

Clay Buchholz John Lackey Jon Lester
ERA 1.73 3.31 3.15
FIP 2.51 3.11 3.41
xFIP 3.22 3.23 3.67

Granted, there are some things that this table overlooks, such as the fact that Lackey’s pitched just about half the innings that the other two have, but that doesn’t diminish this revelation to the point of nothing. Just look at the difference between the xFIP numbers! Only a point’s margin between Lackey and Buchholz. Then the 40-point gap between Lackey and Lester. Unreal. It’s like waking up the morning after Election Day and seeing that Texas voted Democrat.

Other than his debacle in Tampa Bay, at no point in time has John Lackey really become unhinged. You could make a point that the game in Texas he started was bad, but when put in the context of the other two games, it’s not awful. Even the first start he had in Toronto, where he was pulled for a biceps injury, wasn’t terrible – two earned runs, one walk and eight strikeouts in just 4.1 innings. Everything else has been solid. Quality starts all over the place, topped off by the six innings of one-hit ball in Minnesota.

Lackey hasn’t even been in the good graces of Lady Luck either. He’s sitting on a .302 BABIP, which is just about par for the course with his .309 career mark. When it comes to stranding runners, Lackey’s not even succeeding all that well. His 65.2% strand rate (LOB%) in 2013 is ranked as “poor” by Fangraphs (70% is average). Alas, his 8.82 K/9 is most likely unsustainable, but coupled with the regression to the mean of his LOB%, a drop in his strikeout rate might not harm Lackey as much as one may think. 180 innings with a 3.30, 3.40 ERA for him isn’t unattainable.

Set watches to AWESOME O'CLOCK! Photo courtesy of Kelly O'Connor

Set watches to AWESOME O’CLOCK!
Photo courtesy of Kelly O’Connor

Jaw-dropping, right? That John Lackey, quite possibly the most overpaid 5th starter in the history of baseball, is doing this well? The very same John Lackey who was the media-anointed vice president of the Chicken & Beer Club? The one who just missed all of 2012 recovering from Tommy John surgery?

Yes. The very same guy.

It’s easy to get overlooked when guys like Buchholz and Lester are the ones everyone turns to when they think of good Red Sox pitchers. They’re the ones that people expect to be good. But Lackey? Buried behind Dempster and Felix Doubront. No one really cared for the performance of the $16.5 million fifth man in the rotation. Sure, he caused some jokes and optimism when this was the first photo from camp in February, but in the end, Lackey was just an afterthought. The general consensus on him was that mediocrity is what to aim for. A very, very low bar, if you can even count it as one.

Which makes this performance even better. The high-end ZIPS projection of him didn’t even have Lackey sniffing a 4.00 FIP, much less a 3.11 mark. Doubront was supposed to be at least serviceable, and now he’s the weak link instead. Dempster’s giving up 1.46 homers per nine. Both are walking around 5 batters in that same span. And here’s John Lackey, with a 2.20 BB/9 and 0.83 HR/9. Doesn’t that at least deserve some merit?

We’ve all disliked him at one point or another. Heck, I still think he’s up there with Brandon League in terms of not being able to breathe out of one’s nose. But there’s no denying what he’s done so far. It’s not like he was a nobody when he was signed. Lackey came out of Southern California with a respectable eight seasons on his belt. When you look at FIP-, he was even graded as above average for six of those seasons. So there’s still some hope that he can regain some of that former glory.

I’ll admit, there are plenty of holes in this argument. The sample size. Age curves. The quality of the offenses faced. Those are all good suspects to derail the good season’s Lackey’s having. But for now, or at least while it lasts, I’ll enjoy John Lackey being good, even if it’s just for simply not expecting it. In the end, when the playoffs were naught but a dream for this ball club two months ago, won’t it be fun to see the unexpected?