For John Lackey, is it up or down from here?

I remember when I first heard that the Red Sox were signing John Lackey.  I remember thinking that it had to be a joke.  In addition to the fact that I (along with much of Red Sox nation) had just spent the winter mulling over how much I hated John Lackey and the Angels he had spent his career on – which I like to think was at least a little justified since they’d so easily just swept the Red Sox out of the playoffs.

In addition to the intense dislike of him I’d garnered over the last couple of years, it just seemed unlikely- the Sox had Lester, Beckett, Buchholz, Matsuzaka, and Wakefield; it already looked like a pretty good rotation on paper and it seemed like it would make a whole lot more sense to sign a pretty good pitcher to a short contract than to go all out signing the best pitcher available for big money.

I spent the next couple of weeks trying to figure out and justify to myself how that could possibly make sense, but remained unconvinced. 

Once, however, Spring Training came around, he changed my mind faster than I could have believed.

 

He quickly became the most entertaining part of the Grapefruit League for me.  During games, he was dominant, almost making it all the way through the spring without allowing a single earned run.  In his interviews after the games I just thought he was hilarious.  In my mind, he seemed poised for a huge year in the championship-caliber team I was convinced they put together.

After his dominant appearance on St. Patrick’s Day, he said:

Usually in spring, if I get to three balls on a guy, I'll just throw it down the middle,'' Lackey said. "But I don't walk guys, anyway. I 'm going to pound the zone, so I need guys to make plays behind me, and it's fun to know that here, they can.'

 I thought to myself that this was a philosophy I could get behind.

Once the season started, it was a whole different story.  He was striking out batters far below his lowest career rate, walking them more than ever before, but worst of all, he seemed incredibly hittable.  He seemed to have lost everything that had made me worry when the Sox had faced him in the past, and was left with poor pitching and an unapologetic attitude, insisting again and again that he was pitching the way he wanted and was just getting unlucky.  He seemed to have no desire to change anything he was doing or figure out where his problems lie.

 It didn’t seem to be until much later in the year that he finally started owning up to his mistakes and making the adjustments he needed.  I didn’t notice it until after getting obliterated by the Blue Jays, when in his postgame press conference he said:

You deserve to lose when you pitch like this. I didn't pitch well and didn't give us a chance to win.

When I saw that, I looked back and realized he had actually been pitching pretty well since about the all-star break.  His strikeout rates had gone way up and while his walk rates still weren’t phenomenal, they were improving to about the levels I’d expect from a pitcher like Lackey.  A couple of days later, he explained that in the AL East he had to adjust his pitching more than he expected.  As Jason Varitek explained to Peter Abraham of the Boston Globe:

Not to disparage anybody else, but [the AL East] is traditionally where the best lineups are. You are going to face these teams four or five times, not just in a three-game series when you might not pitch. You have to make adjustments.

 Once Lackey finally started taking responsibility and adjusting to facing the elite AL East lineups so many times, he finally became the pitcher we hoped we would be getting coming into the year.  Due to a very impressive finish in September and October, Lackey actually looked quite good at the end of the year.  While it still ended up being one of the worst years of his career, it was nowhere near as bad as it looked like it was going to be in the beginning of July.

 Basically, Lackey has looked like a severe disappointment this year, but there is hope.  If he can continue the solid pitching he flashed at the end of the year, he could be back to the elite #2-#3 starter that we’d hoped he would be in the first place.  So far his Red Sox career has been up and down, but I’m feeling optimistic about the Lackey we’re going to see in 2011.

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