If you're like me, you weren't sure what to make of the John Lackey signing in the offseason. Also if you're like me, you're not sure what to make of the coming years with him. Let's figure this out together.
John Lackey is a Texas boy. He was raised in Abiline, TX, he went to college in Arlington, and during his time in the Minors, his managers referred to him as "The Texan." Much like everything is bigger in Texas, so is Lackey. Measuring up to a tall 6'6", he is the tallest member of the Boston pitching rotation (although he only beats Beckett by an inch. More on that later.) He has a reputation for being extremely competitive, so much so that he once refused to be pulled from a Minor Leauge start, and then continued to pitch dominantly. In 2002, he was called up to the Angels for his first major league start- fittingly against the Texas Rangers- where he remained until 2009.
It is at this point in the tale of John Lackey that things start to get interesting. After testing free agency, Lackey signed with the Red Sox to a 5-year $82.5 million contract. And after pitching roughly a third of the season, that looks like $82.5 million out the door. His ERA is 4.95 with a record of 6-3. His strikeout rate is down and his walk rate is up.
But the question is do these numbers tell the whole story? And if they do, what can we expect from him the rest of the season? The rest of his contract?
Well, these numbers don't tell the whole story. But sadly, they're slightly inflating his worth.
Fangraph's more-reliable Fielding Independent Pitching Performance on an ERA Scale (FIP) is slightly worse than his ERA. A FIP of 5.00 compared to his ERA of 4.95 indicates a slight inflation due to the help of the defense and the- dare I say it- bullpen. His WHIP is a career high 1.66. The only good news looking at Lackey's stat-line is that his BABIP is slightliy above his career average of .312- sitting roughly at .323. The flip-side of that coin, however, is that number is not so high to indicate an expected statistical regression to career averages. If he gets better, he'll likely get slightly better, but not without fixing his pitches.
Looking at his individual pitches, its pretty clear what's going on. Lackey has a 4 pitch repertoire (not counting the 5 seasons he used a cutter). His pitch selection amongst those pitches is, this season, almost identical to years prior and his career average. That said, hitter's results with those pitches is somewhat out of whack. His fastball and slider have gone from good to average, his changeup has gone from bad to worse, and his curveball has gone from very good to absolutely atrocious. Opposing hitters are swinging at less pitches outside the zone, but the ones they do swing at, they hit and they hit well. Hitting percentage on pitches thrown outside the zone has increased from his career average of 56.9% to a ridiculous 68.9%.
So, what does all of this tell us, aside from the fact that Lackey is having a bad year? Well, in a vacuum, nothing. But in context, slightly more.
Using Bill James's Similarity Scores, we are able to look at a player statistics and come up with a numeric value that shows how similar that player is to another player in baseball history. When done with John Lackey, something interesting happens: his most similar pitcher in baseball history is Josh Beckett.
WTF? SERIOUSLY WTF?
The good news is that there are other pitchers to which we can compare them both. But seriously, isn't that one hell of a coincidence?
Late 80s Brewers pitcher Teddy Higuera, his teammate Moose Haas, former Pirate Steve Blass, and current St. Louis pitcher Chris Carpenter are the next four most similar pitchers. Among them, three pitchers had a year 9-10 slump. Of those pitchers, only one rebounded. The other two were out of the league soon after.
So, who is John Lackey? And for that matter, who is Josh Beckett? Sure they're both god awful this year, but does that mean their time in the "who's the ace" argument is up? These comparisons seem to suggest one of these guys is due to break out of their slump, and one of them is destined to fade away. But really, anything can happen. The game has changed now. Modern medicine is different. Pitching styles and routines are different even from the 70s and 80s.
I like Josh Beckett. I always have. As skeptical of the Hanley Ramirez trade as I was then, I love it now. He's a pitcher with a big personality that matches the big personality of Red Sox Nation. He helped win us a title, and for that I'll be forever grateful. I like the idea of John Lackey. I liked the idea of another big, mean, starter. I liked having him on our side after seeing him from the other side. Sure, Fenway was never too kind to him, but I thought, surely he could learn to pitch there? After looking at these numbers, to me it seems clear that the future is foggy for our two big money pitchers. It really does seem that the two most fiery pitchers in the Boston rotation share more than just a desire to stomp on the competition- they seem to share a fate.
What do you think? Both of these guys are here for the foreseeable future. Are they destined to break out once again or fade into the realm of wasted money?