Though the Red Sox eventually lost to the Texas Rangers, 3-2, on Wednesday night, John Lackey notched his fourth straight quality start in what turned out to be a no decision for the right-hander. Lackey has gone at least six innings with three or less earned runs in seven of his nine starts in 2013, looking like the front-end starting pitcher Boston eagerly handed over $80 million to prior to the 2010 season.
Of course, it hasn’t always been like this. After a pretty decent (but not so great) first season in Boston, Lackey was demonstratively awful in 2011, as his 6.41 ERA proved to be dead last among all big league starters. He was at the center of the Sox’ “fried chicken and beer scandal” that September, scapegoated alongside Josh Beckett as the poster boy for not caring while his team plummeted out of the playoffs. When Tommy John surgery in the offseason forced Lackey to miss all of 2012, it was seen as more of a godsend (albeit a costly one) than as a dent in the rotation.
But so far this year, Lackey has been unequivocally rock-solid. His 2.79 ranks ninth in the American League, and his 0.9 fWAR through nine starts puts him right on pace for a decent three-win campaign. Ask the entire Red Sox front office in March if they’d take that kind of production from their 34-year-old reclamation project, and the answer would be a unanimous DUH!
Lackey’s success in 2013 is encouraging, headlined by his career-best 8.71 K/9. In fact, other than in 2005, Lackey had never struck out more than eight batters per nine innings in a season. His current walk rate, 2.44, is down there with some of the best years of his career, indicating that he hasn’t sacrificed his control in order to punch more hitters out. So what exactly is he doing differently?
According to PITCHf/x data via FanGraphs, Lackey threw his four-seam fastball on just over 15 percent of his pitches in 2010 and 2011, his first two years in Boston. Most of his fastball use came via what the data calls his “cutter,” which he threw 41.9 percent and 34.7 percent of the time those years, respectively. He also began throwing a two-seam fastball in 2010, according to the data, but only used it sparingly.
While those percentages in a vacuum don’t indicate reasons for Lackey’s initial failures in Boston, they are quite telling when compared to his pitch usage in Anaheim. From 2007 to 2010, Lackey threw four-seam fastballs upwards of 59 percent in a season, and used his “cutter” no more than 2 percent of the time.
In May 2011, Troy Patterson noticed this same trend in Lackey’s sudden change in fastball use, and questioned whether or not he was actually throwing a cutter. As Patterson pointed out, Lackey was indeed not working on a new pitch; his four-seam fastball simply stopped having any horizontal movement. He was still trying to throw the same pitch just as often as when he was with the Angels, only with much less effectiveness.
This year, the data suggests that Lackey’s fastball is back to par. He’s throwing his four-seamer 54 percent of the time, and while he is still throwing a cutter on over 24 percent of his pitches, his slider use has decreased 22 percent in 2011 to 3 percent in 2013. (A slider and cutter are very similar pitches, and this brings up the question of whether PITCHf/x is also mis-reading one of Lackey’s pitches as a cutter.)
Perhaps it’s Lackey’s now effective four-seam fastball that has allowed him to skyrocket his strikeout totals so far this year. If he is able to continue fanning batters at a rate top-10 rate in the American League, he will prove to be an effective third starter for the Red Sox down the stretch.