John Lackey hasn't had a great tenure with the Red Sox thus far by any measure. Being set to return after missing all of 2012 due to Tommy John Surgery, can he get back to being an effective starter?
I've always had a bit of a problem with the expression "It's always darkest before the dawn." The proverb is meant to say that when things reach their lowest point, and all looks bleak, the sun will soon shine again and things will start to improve. My problem with this saying is that it's impossible to know just when the darkest moment has come. Things may look extremely bleak, but maybe there is time for it to get darker before the sun rises and everything takes a turn for the better.
Heading into 2013, John Lackey finds himself coming off of a very dark time. After signing a questionable five-year, $82.5 million contract with Boston prior to the 2010 season, he has had very little success, especially considering the size of his deal. In his two years of pitching here, he's put up an abysmal 5.26 ERA, good (bad?) enough for an 82 ERA+. The lack of quality with these numbers can be mainly blamed on an especially bad 2011 campaign, in which he put up a 6.20 ERA and a 67 ERA+, and was essentially the worst starting pitcher in all of baseball. So, with all of this being said, can we assume that Lackey has endured his darkest time, and the dawn will arrive on Opening Day 2013?
We'll start by reminding you that he is coming off of Tommy John surgery. It's been well-noted over the past few years that many pitchers have returned just as good, if not better, after undergoing the now-commonplace procedure. However, many of these pitchers undergo it at an early age, while Lackey was 33 at the time of the surgery. There are some similar examples, though. Guys such as Kenny Rogers, Tim Hudson and John Smoltz* have all gone under the knife after the age of thirty and were still successful after. Also, as time has gone on, the knowledge around the procedure has improved, so it would make sense that a strong return would be at least a little more possible in 2013 than it was even five or ten years ago.
*Smoltz is a bit of a special case, as he pitched in the bullpen for a few years after the surgery before returning to the rotation.
To answer my question above, I think it's fair to assume that 2011 was Lackey's darkest hour. For one thing, he was likely pitching hurt that entire season. Now that he's finally undergone Tommy John, we hope his arm is healed and he can pitch pain-free next year. In addition to his heath woes, he also found himself in the middle of some personal issues involving his wife. That alone is cause for distraction, but it became even more of one after it was made a public matter. With this and the injury behind him, the hope is that all Lackey will have to worry about from here on out is throwing strikes and getting batters out. Plus, let's be honest, it's not too difficult to improve upon a season like his 2011 campaign.
Now the question becomes whether Lackey will be a solid member of the rotation or not. As it stands now, he slots in at either the four or five spot, depending on you feel about Felix Doubront. While it's tough to deal with, he's never going to live up to his contract. We need to get past that. However, he wasn't horrible in his first year in Boston, posting a 99 ERA+, meaning he was essentially an average pitcher. At the end of the rotation, that's entirely acceptable.
There are three things that he will need to improve if Lackey wants to get back to the level he was at while he was pitching with the Angels. Firstly, he needs to limit his walks. After four straight seasons with less 2.5 walks per nine innings, he hasn't had a season with that number below three in Boston. In a similar vein, he needs to improve his strikeout rate. Before signing his new deal, he'd been hovering between seven and eight K's per nine, but has fallen all the way down to 6.1 in 2011. Finally, he has got to do better with runners on base. Even with his depreciating peripherals, those numbers still suggest a better performance than his run prevention has shown. His strand rate, typically between 70- and 80-percent in L.A., has fallen into the 60's since joining Boston. It doesn't matter how good your peripherals are. If you let that many base runners score, your final numbers are not going to look pretty.
Thinking Lackey will be any sort of stud in the rotation would be an obvious mistake. He's long past that point. However, expecting him to pitch as poorly as he did two seasons ago is just as foolish. Lackey has reached his darkest time. While his dawn may not shine as bright as most fans would hope, his numbers are sure to be on the upswing. Coming off Tommy John surgery, and finally pitching with a healthy arm and clear head (we hope), Lackey can definitely get back to being around a league-average pitcher. As a back-of-the-rotation arm, that's satisfactory, even if he won't ever live up to his contract.