When manager John Farrell walked out of the dugout in the seventh inning of Game 6 of the World Series, Red Sox fans knew what was coming. Before Farrell could take his second step onto the field, Lackey was barking, "I got this guy." Anyone who had watched Lackey pitch for the Red Sox could have predicted this response. Sure, he had given up two straight hits with two outs in the inning and he was at 98 pitches, but this was John Lackey on the mound. If anyone every deserved to go out on his own terms, it was Lackey- one of the gutsy, most tenacious players ever to put on the Red Sox uniform.
Ok, let's face it. That perception of the events of Game 6 probably doesn't reflect the feelings of most Red Sox in the slightest. Prior to the 2013 season, Lackey was almost universally seen as a major part of the problem and you would have been hard pressed to find anyone who would have described him as a hero. The reaction to his signing in 2010 was mostly negative and early struggles that season reinforced those views. He was one of the worst pitchers in baseball in 2011 and he missed all of the 2012 season as a result of Tommy John surgery. In April of 2013, there was hardly a Red Sox fan alive could have imagined John Lackey starting the clinching game of the World Series for Boston and even fewer who would have thought that would be something to feel good about. But for all the negative press Lackey has gotten, there has always been another side to his story, a side that looks a good deal more persuasive now that the phrase "John Lackey, Red Sox hero" doesn't seem ridiculous at all.
The 2008 and 2009 seasons were not kind to the then-Angels star. Since he broke in with Los Angeles in 2002, and pitched his way to a Game 7 start in the World Series, Lackey had been the definition of a workhorse. He missed 200 innings just once between 2003 and 2007, tossing a mere 198 1/3 innings in 2004. During that time, he developed from a talented, projectable arm to an ace. In 2006 his ERA was 21 percent better than league average and his FIP was 25 percent better (by ERA- and FIP-). In 2007 his ERA was the best in the American league a full 33 percent better than league-average and his FIP was 20 percent better. He finished third in Cy Young voting that season. In 2008, the workload began to catch up with him and he missed time with a triceps injury. Those issues held him to 163 1/3 innings that season and to 174 innings in 2009. Despite that, he was regarded as the best starter in an incredibly weak free agent market prior to the 2010 season and, at 30-years old, he was certain to command a big payday.
When the Red Sox gave him five years and $82.5 million dollars, few fans rejoiced. The Angels made little effort to retain him and, at an average annual value of $16.5 million, the deal was hardly a bargain. Additionally, language in the contract that gave the Red Sox an extra year of Lackey's services at league minimum if his elbow cost him significant time added to the concerns about his health. The rotation had been an issue for the 2009 club, but Lackey hardly seemed like the solution. With youngsters like Clay Buchholz, Junichi Tazawa and Justin Masterson flashing promise during the season, it was easy to imagine an injured and ineffective Lackey earning his money as an extremely overpaid fifth starter in between DL stints. Over the next two seasons, everything fear that a Red Sox fan could have had about the signing basically came true.
Lackey wasn't 100 percent to start the 2010 season and his early results further soured most fans. He was dreadful in May of that season, posting a 5.17 ERA and walking as many batters as he struck out on the month. He would recover from this rocky start, posting an ERA of 3.97 over the second half in a league where the average ERA was 4.46 (different times, those), but the damage to his reputation and his full-season stats was too much to overcome. He finished the year with a 4.40 ERA (still better than league average) and his peripherals suggested he was even better, with a 3.85 FIP and a 4.15 xFIP. That club was decimated by injuries and ended up as the first Red Sox team to miss the playoffs in three years.
Fans may have been disappointed with Lackey in 2010, but his performance in 2011, along with a popular narrative pushed on us to explain the team's late season collapse, created the image of him as a bum. There is no escaping the poor performance; Lackey's 6.41 ERA over 160 innings was the worst of any full-time starter that season. The numbers might have been bad, but it was the narrative that truly turned fans against Lackey. The reports of Lackey and fellow starters Jon Lester, Josh Beckett and Clay Buchholz drinking beer and eating fried chicken in the clubhouse as the team went 7-21 in September to fall one game short of the playoffs whipped the less analytic sections of the fan base into a frenzy. With little goodwill stocked away, Lackey faced frequent and resounding calls for his departure. The problem with the 2011 Red Sox was players like Lackey, the story went. He was selfish and disinterested. He preferred eating fatty foods and pound brews to sitting in the dugout and being a good teammate. He had to go...
There is just one problem with this line of reasoning. If you played the 2011 season over 1000, at least 900 times, John Lackey's performance would be considered heroic. As bad as he was, he was also horribly unlucky, especially in September. He deserved better than the fate assigned him in the wake of the collapse, but no one really wanted to hear it then. Even with his dreadful numbers and the team's epic collapse, you can make the case that what John Lackey did in 2011 was the epitome of selflessness and guts.
On a team that lost two of its five starters in June, John Lackey made 26 starts on the season, pitching most of them with a torn UCL. He wasn't good, but he was there almost every fifth day all season, pitching on an elbow that would require surgery and a year and a half of rehab. His poor performance isn't the least bit surprising when you consider the injury. David Price, a better hurler than Lackey by any measure, pitched the first two month of the 2013 with a far more minor injury to his elbow and posted an ERA well over 5.00. Josh Johnson struggled with triceps injuries on his way to a 6.20 ERA this season. Typically, if a pitcher's elbow goes, it is off to see Dr. Andrews on the next flight. The pain has to be extremely difficult to overcome and the risk of creating other, more irreparable injuries while pitching hurt makes the danger too much for almost anyone to attempt playing through it. Not John Lackey, though. Lackey saw the Red Sox resorting to guys like Kyle Weiland, Andrew Miller and Tim Wakefield and he kept pitching. His efforts might not have helped the club, but ordinarily, they would draw at least some mild admiration. There was no A for effort for John Lackey though.
Even at his best, John Lackey isn't the easiest player to root for. He is a self-described "asshole" on the mound. He treats every base hit and borderline call against him as a personal slight, cursing like he just discovered someone keyed his car. He yells at teammates and paces angrily after any misplay. He seems aware of the fact that these actions don't paint him in the best light, but he doesn't appear to make any attempt to change his behavior. His reaction to the chicken-and-beer scandal, in which he called the reports "retarded," didn't help things either. All of these unlikable traits may have helped to further alienate fans from a player they didn't want to begin with, but the only thing that really made people dislike John Lackey was the numbers. If the Red Sox gave Gandhi $82.5 million and he posted a 5.26 ERA in two years, he too would feel our wrath.
This is the problem with any argument in sports that comes down to supposed intangibles. We can pretend to value certain things, like playing through pain or making personal sacrifices, but when they don't conveniently connect to the positive results we want, we are happy to ignore them or twist them around into negatives. Another pitcher might draw praise from beat writers for "pitching with a chip on his shoulder" but when John Lackey and the giant granite boulder he takes to the hill come with the worst ERA in the game, he is a crybaby out there. Far too many people are quick to call a player soft for not playing through injury, but the same crowd gives no quarter to a player like Lackey who pitches through pain and performs horribly. Would we still admire Kirk Gibson if he ground out to the right fielder in the 1988 World Series? Or would we chastise him for doing something he had no business attempting?
What we really admire is performance. If that performance comes with compelling narrative, all the better, but attach the same storyline to a failure and no one will care or believe it. Thankfully, we can now re-write the history of John Lackey. He didn't get his man in that seventh inning. Holliday battled him for seven pitches to draw a walk and a wild pitch during the at-bat moved Carlos Beltran from first to second. Lackey was done and he should have been out of the game, but no one would ever have been able to convince him of that fact. In the end, that particular result didn't matter. Junichi Tazawa entered the game and quickly recorded the final out. Lackey earned his third win of the playoffs in the clinching Game 6 and with it, he earned the right for a more even-handed appraisal of his time with this club. He wasn't always great, but pitched through pain and through the negative press, always believing he could get that next guy out. In 2013 he was right often enough and it made him one of the heroes for this World Champion Red Sox team.