The Lackey Problem

by Marc on August 20, 2010

in Red Sox

Photo courtesy of SI.com

Between the injuries and the fact that he has a won-loss record of 11-7, it feels like John Lackey’s disappointing debut season with the Red Sox has been given more slack than it deserves. It’s not that we should be on some kind of Lackey witch hunt with analysis, it’s just that there were far more pressing concerns, and whether he stunk or not, the fact he was out there every start made him hold at least some value, especially when dealing with the other injuries in the rotation.

I’ll come right out and say this before we dig in: I had a strong dislike for the Lackey deal when Boston signed it. They handed out a five-year contract to a pitcher, which is something they don’t do, and the hurler in question was coming off of two shortened seasons with some warning signs (like an elbow injury) attached to them. Let’s not forget he was also heading into his age 32 season, meaning he’ll be close to retiring by the time he’s out of a Boston uniform. I can’t say, “I told you so” because of 2010, because the decline he’s suffered now wasn’t expected from me immediately–the fact it has come even sooner than my negative outlook thought it would probably isn’t a good sign for Lackey though.

Whether or not the deal was a good idea or not isn’t the point of this though, as he’s in the rotation for the foreseeable future regardless. The important thing to figure out is what they have in Lackey going forward.

For the year, Lackey is whiffing 5.8 batters per nine and walking 3.3 per nine, while allowing 0.8 homers per nine and posting the same kind of G/F ratios he has for most of his career–that is, mostly average, with an ever-so-slight lean towards grounders. While his ERA is upsetting at 4.62, this is not a case of poor luck for the Texan–his SIERA, which is a more accurate reflection of performance than actual ERA, is 4.60. That SIERA mark puts him #100 amongst pitchers with 100 innings pitched in 2010–there are 125 pitchers who have hit that mark, so you can guess what kind of company he’s keeping. To give this a bit more perspective, the American League average SIERA is 4.23.

This is not all Fenway’s doing, and it isn’t because he’s in the American League East instead of the AL West. Yes, Fenway has been a tougher place for him to pitch, but it’s not like he’s been the old Lackey on the road either: he has a 4.83 ERA at Fenway with 6.1 K/9, 2.6 BB/9 and 0.8 HR/9, and is at 4.41, 5.4 K/9, 4.0 BB/9 and 0.8 HR/9 on the road. As far as the AL East goes, yes, Lackey is facing tougher lineups on a more consistent basis, but he’s also performed worse than he should against them. He ranks #22 in Opponent Quality of OPS (it measures the performance of the lineups a pitcher has faced against the league) at 739 (min. 100 IP) which comes from a line of .259/.331/.408. Lackey has allowed that group to hit .291/.354/.443 against him, good for an OPS of 797.

Part of that is his .328 BABIP, which could be bad luck–Boston’s defense is far better at converting balls in play into outs than that–but some of it is Lackey’s doing as evidenced by SIERA, which takes balls in play into account. Even if you cut a couple tenths of a run off of his SIERA or ERA, we’re still talking about a league-average performance on the year.

One thing that merits a mention, and could be a positive point in Lackey’s favor, is that his walk rate has dipped a bit since the All-Star break. Whereas he handed out free passes to 3.7 batters per nine prior to it (worse than league average) he’s seen that figure slip to 2.4 per nine since–much closer to what we’re used to from Lackey’s past. The problem is that the strikeouts have not returned, but given the way this year has gone and the fact he has four years left on the deal, let’s celebrate a small victory and appreciate that a return to his previous walk rates makes him a better than he’s been for much of this season: his second-half K/BB is 2.8, while his first half was 1.5. That’s a significant jump, especially without the added benefit of a boosted whiff rate.

Lackey has been well below the league-average this year, even given the context of where he pitches and his performance. Fixing his K/BB, as he seems to have in the second half, is a step towards being average. If he could get the strikeouts back, we could see the Lackey Boston thought they were signing return in 2011, but given he hasn’t been a well above-average strikeout threat for years now, that’s a slim thought to pin your hopes on.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Matt August 21, 2010 at 8:05 am

Lackey’s awfulness this year boils down to his control, in particular his curveball control. He used to be able to throw and locate that pitch in any count, this year not so much. Ball four isn’t necessarily his problem because his 3.28 BB/9 isn’t awful for a starter. It’s really just control in general. He’ll leave pitches out over the plate and they’re just getting hammered. I recently watched some of his 08 playoff games, and nothing was hit hard. Now everything is smoked (lot of XBH). He’ll get ahead of the batter 0-2, Martinez will set up low and away, and he’ll throw a ball right down the middle. If he can get his control back, then I don’t see why he won’t put up 09 numbers in 2011. He may never live up to his contract, and be dominant like in 07, but if he solves the control, he can be a fine pitcher.

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Marc August 21, 2010 at 12:16 pm

That’s part of the reason I think the BABIP is his doing as well, and not just poor luck. Pitchers have limited control over BABIP, but even with that, pitches that aren’t as good/are easier to hit can have a higher velocity coming off of the bat, makings things tougher on defenses.

His command has just been off, and it’s been better in the second half (as has his control) but I’m nervous about the strikeouts not reappearing yet.

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