FanPost

Will John Lackey Rebound In 2011?

[Stats & information from Fangraphs, ESPN, and TexasLeaguers]

 

If you had predicted that John Lackey would give Boston 215 innings’ worth of 3.85 FIP (exactly in line with his career 3.83, coincidentally) in 2010 while serving as the #3 starter for most of the season, I suspect most fans would have been very pleased. We all know, however, that the perception of Lackey’s season was anything but that. After a frustrating and inconsistent start to 2010, Lackey steadily improved and finished the year strongly. By then, however, he had already been declared a bust by the beloved reactionary element of this fanbase, including the usual suspects in Boston sports media who coined such timeless puns as “John Lacking.” The size of Lackey’s free-agent contract, which was immediately perceived by many as an overpay (That being a debate for another time), didn’t help matters. Lackey thus gained the ignominious distinction of being perhaps the most criticized 4.0 WAR pitcher in recent memory. With the Boston rotation nearly certain to remain static for 2011, a closer look at Lackey’s 2010 difficulties and 2011 prognosis seems in order.

 

I am keenly aware not to read too much into small sample sizes, but I am also hesitant to look too deeply into Lackey’s season-total stats due to the oddly disjointed progression of his improvement over the course of the year. For Lackey, 2010 was basically a tale of three seasons. In order, call them Bad John, Mediocre John, and Good John. In my opinion, tracking Lackey’s progression between these three phases of the season provides the clearest image of his first year in the ALE.

 

Bad John

April-May Peripherals courtesy of FanGraphs

Month

K9

BB9

HR9

BABIP

Strand

FIP/xFIP

April

5.1

3.6

0.6

.328

70.8%

4.11/4.93

May

5.17

5.17

1.44

.285

75.6%

5.82/5.54

 

Bad John needs little explanation as he frankly sucked right out of the gate, ensuring a poor first impression on an increasingly impatient fanbase. His April FIP seemed passable but the terrible K-rate and uninspiring BB/9 ensured even that mediocre level of success was unsustainable. Lackey’s May was utterly disastrous as his K-rate remained stuck in neutral, while his walk rate surged to absurd levels and opponents teed off with the long ball, reflected in his hideous FIP/xFIP.

 

April-May Pitch Results courtesy of TexasLeaguers.

 

Type

Count

Usage

Strike

MLB

Swing

MLB

Whiff

MLB

Cutter

403

38.3%

63.8%

66.7%

40.2%

50.0%

3.2%

8.4%

Curve

290

27.6%

63.4%

58.0%

45.9%

39.9%

10.3%

11.6%

4S FB

209

19.9%

58.9%

64.4%

39.2%

45.2%

2.4%

6.0%

2S FB

60

5.7%

55.0%

63.4%

40.0%

47.7%

6.7%

13.6%

Slider

55

5.2%

65.5%

60.7%

45.5%

48.1%

14.5%

12.6%

Change

34

3.2%

41.2%

57.2%

41.2%

39.5%

11.8%

5.0%

 

*Note: TexasLeaguers uses different pitch classifications from FanGraphs. I have no idea how to sort out the two. For what it’s worth, FG has Lackey featuring fastball, slider, curve and change in 2010.*

 

Pitch data reveals Lackey’s deep trouble with his fastball in the first two months. He had difficulty throwing the fastball for strikes, getting hitters to chase it, and especially at getting them to swing and miss; Lackey’s whiff rate for all fastball types was less than half the MLB average. With the fastball so ineffective, he was forced to lean heavily on the curve as an out pitch, which opponents could then sit on; despite the curve being Lackey’s strongest weapon in prior years (worth a combined 31.8 runs more than average in 2007-09 according to FG), it generated fewer whiffs and batters took more hacks at it. His changeup gave him nightmares to control; Lackey’s trouble locating it would foreshadow his difficulties against lefty batters in 2010, who smoked him for a .298 BA and .802 OPS on the year. At the conclusion of May, Lackey was essentially struggling to keep his head above water.

 

 

Mediocre John

Month

K9

BB9

HR9

BABIP

Strand

FIP/xFIP

June

5.45

2.04

0.45

.358

74.3%

3.36/4.49

July

5.77

2.88

0.52

.286

68.0%

3.60/4.28

 

During the next two months, Mediocre John presented himself. Lackey managed to stabilize his walks and suppress home runs, with no small help from a more favorable ground/fly ball ratio; after posting a 1.16 in April and 1.15 in May, he put up a 1.21 in June and a 1.50 in July. While xFIP takes a less compassionate view of his improvement, it is worth noting that Lackey has consistently suppressed HR’s and thus outperformed his xFIP in recent years. His final season xFIP of 4.32 appears far less flattering than his final FIP of 3.85, as the former metric is skeptical of Lackey’s final 0.75 HR9 mark for 2010; however, he had posted equivalent or lower HR9 ratios in every season from 2005-07, so I am unconvinced that this figure is beyond his plausible true talent level. All numbers aside, Mediocre John was probably somewhere in the middle: not as good as his FIP would suggest, but somewhat better than his xFIP would indicate. Lackey’s poor fortune also went unabated as his BABIP and strand rate continued to do him no favors.

 

 

Type

Count

Usage

Strike

MLB

Swing

MLB

Whiff

MLB

Cutter

450

36.7%

59.1%

66.7%

40.0%

50.0%

3.8%

8.4%

Curve

288

23.5%

66.7%

58.0%

44.8%

39.9%

6.9%

11.6%

4S FB

228

18.6%

64.5%

64.4%

41.2%

45.2%

3.1%

6.0%

Slider

141

11.5%

65.2%

60.7%

52.5%

48.1%

18.4%

12.6%

Change

60

4.9%

58.3%

57.2%

48.3%

39.5%

6.7%

5.0%

2S FB

59

4.8%

61.0%

63.4%

50.8%

47.7%

3.4%

13.6%

 

Pitch wise, Mediocre John experienced some minor improvement with his fastball, but for the most part continued having a difficult time throwing consistent strikes or getting swings and misses. When he did manage to command his fastball, it got pounded. Thus, he leaned even more heavily on the curveball to get ahead, throwing it for a strike almost two-thirds of the time. The price was predictable, however, as hitters reacted by swinging even more aggressively at it and consequently whiffed even less than before. The major improvement which prevented Mediocre John from repeating his early-season disaster, however, was increased usage of the slider, which he employed far more frequently than he had in April and May. This pitch was Lackey’s lifeline, as he enjoyed a high chase rate and an excellent 18.4% whiff rate when using it. Going into the final stretch of the season, observers had a few signs of hope to be cautiously optimistic about him.

 

 

Good John

Month

K9

BB9

HR9

BABIP

Strand

FIP/xFIP

August

8.85

3.10

1.11

.376

64.9%

3.74/3.39

September

8.08

1.85

0.46

.286

60.7%

2.87/3.71

 

Good John finally decided to show up in August and September, though a horrendous BABIP and strand rate resulted in a 5.75 August ERA; ironically, this gave further ammunition to those frothing for Lackey’s head, even as he displayed tremendous improvement otherwise. Lackey’s walk rate remained at career-normal levels while his K rate exploded. While most found it hard to believe that he could have regressed to a ~5.5 K/9 pitcher, it is probably not much more likely that he can maintain an 8+ K9 rate in the AL East. So were the two months a random statistical fluke, or did Lackey actually make adjustments that finally allowed him to exploit the hitters that had been tormenting him all season?

 

Type

Count

Usage

Strike

MLB

Swing

MLB

Whiff

MLB

Cutter

545

46.2%

67.3%

66.7%

44.0%

50.0%

5.9%

8.4%

Curve

241

20.4%

64.3%

58.0%

45.6%

39.9%

14.5%

11.6%

4S FB

138

11.7%

63.0%

64.4%

47.8%

45.2%

4.3%

6.0%

Slider

138

11.7%

60.1%

60.7%

50.7%

48.1%

15.2%

12.6%

Change

72

6.1%

61.1%

57.2%

48.6%

39.5%

12.5%

5.0%

2S FB

46

3.9%

60.9%

63.4%

54.3%

47.7%

10.9%

13.6%

 

The data indicates that first and foremost, Lackey displayed notably improved fastball location. As a result, he induced significantly more swings and his whiff rates on all fastball types, though still below average, climbed towards respectability. Even more importantly, however, this fastball improvement in turn made his curve and slider far more effective. With the fastball regaining its usefulness, Lackey was able to reduce his reliance on the curve, throwing it less than he had at any other point in the year, while using his slider much as he had in June and July. As a result, both pitches registered Bard-esque whiff rates, allowing Lackey to finally start stringing together strikeouts. Nothing in Lackey’s August and September improvement is that difficult to understand. When a pitcher can both locate his fastball and generate mid-teens whiff rates on two offspeed pitches, he will be successful. Whether the underlying reasons were a mechanical adjustment, pitch selection, or anything else, Lackey’s improvement was genuine and very much for real.

 

The Outlook for 2011

Given Lackey’s personality and competitive reputation, he will surely be intent on making a far better impression in his second year as a Red Sox than he did in his first. For whatever reason, whether mechanical, physical, or mental, Lackey’s control and command was inconsistent or simply deserted him for much of early-mid 2010. Poor luck undoubtedly played a large role as well, as many of his monthly BABIP and strand rates were nothing if not groan-inducing. To his credit, Lackey clearly adjusted and managed to successfully adapt against whatever problems bugged him in April-May and to a lesser extent in June-July. Barring another inexplicable loss of control, I am optimistic that he can parlay his late-season adjustments into a strong season next year. If he can translate his success from the latter part of last year, I would not be surprised if Lackey can generate 200+ innings of a ~3.6-3.9 FIP. That is tremendously valuable from any pitcher, even more so from your on-paper #3/4 starter.

 

Time will tell, but in my opinion the signs are positive for him to rebound nicely in 2011.

 

 

 

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