It's only been two starts, so you can't quite declare, in all capital letters, that John Lackey is back in the useful form he once knew. However, there are early reasons to believe that he should be productive for the Red Sox once more, pushing back memories of his dreadful 2011 in a way that time alone cannot.
For one, there's just the fact that most pitchers who come back from Tommy John surgery -- even veterans in their 30s like Lackey -- tend to perform well after undergoing the procedure. Things can get a little tough with command and control, but they also tend to improve as the year goes on, the further from their surgery they are: Lackey began 2013 18 months removed from surgery, far longer than the likes of say, Adam Wainwright, who was back on a big-league mound 12 months after his procedure due to when in the year he went under the knife compared to Lackey's off-season procedure. Despite that quick return, Wainwright was fine after some initial and expected lumps, a reminder that Tommy John is a fairly standard and successful procedure these days.
Then there's the fact that Lackey has already made a notable adjustment in how he goes about attacking batters, compared to how he did things in 2011: Lackey's sinker, nearly invisible in 2011, has returned to his repertoire.
According to Brooks Baseball, which analyzes pitch data from PITCHf/x to give us a clearer idea of what is actually being thrown, Lackey has used his sinker 17 percent of the time since 2007. In 2013, he's right around that mark, with 16 percent sinker usage -- in both situations, it's the pitch he utilized the third-most, behind his four-seam fastball and his curve. However, in 2011, Lackey threw his sinker just four percent of the time. In 28 starts and 160 innings of that year, he threw just 120 sinkers, or roughly four per start.
In his two starts to begin 2013, Lackey has already gone to the sinker 24 times. While it doesn't have quite the movement on it that it used to pre-2011, the pitch has shown more vertical movement -- key to a pitch named for its ability to sink -- than it did in 2011, when he essentially shelved the offering. It's now moving roughly 6.5 inches horizontally and just under six inches vertically, whereas in 2011, it had the horizontal movement, but moved under five inches vertically. Baseball is referred to as a game of inches for a reason, as that inch can make all the difference.
In 2011, Lackey's sinkers were hit for a .500 average and .625 slugging. It's a limited sample, but the fact Lackey stopped utilizing the offering likely tells you that, in the condition his elbow was in, he didn't feel he could get the pitch to work for him like it had in the past. He saw a whiff on his sinker just 1.6 percent of the time in 2011 -- he's been about five percentage points above that since 2007, even including that awful campaign -- rendering the pitch pointless. If he couldn't miss any bats, and it was a hit half the time it was put in play, then you can understand why he focused on his other offerings more.
While he hasn't seen a single whiff on it in 2013, he has induced grounders on it 80 percent of the time it's been swung at. That's well above both career rates and what you can expect for him -- again, we're talking about a couple dozen pitches -- but it's something to watch out for going forward. If he continues to see success with the sinker, then he'll continue to use it. If he has that extra weapon in his arsenal, then there's an even better chance of him producing over the course of the season, keeping with the success of his first couple of starts post-Tommy John.