John Lackey of the Boston Red Sox reacts after giving up a three run homer in the first inning against the Kansas City Royals at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Ask the question posed in the headline, and you generally get one of two responses: "Rabble rabble Lackey is terrible!", or, "Just good enough." The first answer is fueled by the post-traumatic stress that Lackey's pre-disabled list stint performance brought on in many a good Red Sox fan, but the second answer is closer to the truth. He hasn't been good, exactly, but with the Red Sox offense the way it is, being "good enough" has mostly done the trick.
Lackey has made 11 starts since his return to the mound following a cortisone shot to his ailing elbow, but we're just going to focus on 10 of those today. As is usual, the rainy day San Diego start is being tossed out for reasons we have discussed many times before: his normally solid control was nowhere to be found, presumably due to the weather conditions. It's there in his record, but we'll give him a pass. The Fourth of July disaster remains, though -- my heart is only so big.
In those 10 starts, Lackey has thrown 61-1/3 innings, giving him an average of over six frames each outing. That's a positive. He is striking out seven batters per nine, which, while not special, is at least around the league average. His walk rate has been stellar, as Lackey has handed out free passes just eight times in those 61-plus frames, for a walk rate of 1.7 per nine and a stellar K/BB of 6.0.
Don't get too excited, though, as there have been issues, too. Lackey has been in the strike zone very often, as all of his pitches have been called strikes at a rate over the league average -- hence the low walk rate -- but this also means he is throwing plenty of pitches that, looking at his numbers, could be described as "hittable." Case in point: despite the above-average called strike rate, Lackey is below-average as far as swinging strikes go with every single one of his offerings.
Despite a Red Sox defense that is third in Defensive Efficiency in the majors -- i.e., the Red Sox convert the third-highest percentage of balls in play into outs in the league -- Lackey has given up 10.9 hits per nine innings since returning from the DL. Many of those hits have traveled long distances, too, as Lackey has given up nine homers in that stretch for a HR/9 of 1.3 -- yes, he has given up more homers than walks since returning from injury. He has also been susceptible to lefties, as southpaws are hitting .356/.400/.577 against him in their last 149 at-bats (since his return) a much more severe beating than his previous splits have shown.
Combine the good with the bad, and you get an ERA of 4.70 and a Run Average of 4.99. The Red Sox are scoring 5.5 runs per game, but Lackey is cutting it close -- it's kind of amazing that last night's start was the first no-decision he has on the year. Of course, his numbers look much better without that awful July 4 start against Toronto in which he gave up seven runs in 2-1/3 frames (his RA and ERA drop to 4.12 and 3.81, respectively, without that), but if we take out that and the rain-delay start, things just start to get messy, and we're cherry picking stats to say Lackey has actually been good, when in reality, he has been a bit of a mixed bag.
It's pretty clear Lackey is capable of pitching well with the Red Sox, but on occasion, his tendency to stick within the strike zone hurts him, as it did in Toronto, and as it has since June as far as home runs are concerned. He needs to pitch better against lefties -- maybe throw more off-speed pitches against them, as he has primarily stuck to his fastball and slider -- but also needs to avoid counts where a pitch the batter can crush needs to be thrown. Don't take this to mean that Boston can't win with him in the rotation, even if nothing changes -- again, this offense is ridiculous, and Lackey is useful more often than not -- just know that some criticism of Lackey is warranted. Except for when it isn't -- this is why he has been frustrating to watch.