Maybe I'm just not paying enough attention, but it seems like there has been hardly any conversation around John Lackey this spring. That's pretty surprising, given how big of a story his comeback season last year was. We all know the tale by now, when he went from having one of the worst seasons by a pitcher in recent memory, marred by controversy, then missing an entire season due to injury, only to come back and pitch like a top-of-the-rotation pitcher.
One would think that would at least be somewhat in the conversation during camp. Instead, he's the classic middle man in the rotation. He's lacking the upside and excitement of Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz, and he doesn't have the same worrisome question marks as Felix Doubront and Jake Peavy. There's a legitmate question of how likely a repeat performance is, though. Were his struggles in 2011 due to the injury that caused him to miss 2012? Is he now completely over the injuries, and ready to be a well above-average pitcher again in 2014?
The first key for Lackey to stay a productive pitcher is to continue limiting walks. Clearly, that's a key for a lot of pitchers, but that was arguably the number one reason for his venture back to relevance in 2013. Though he's never been one to lose complete control - even in his dark times, this isn't his issue - he reached a new level of control last season. He set career bests with just under two walks per nine innings, and in walking just five percent of the batters he faced. Unfortunately, it's unclear whether or not he'll be able to replicate that performance this season, at least to that extent. Looking at his pitch f/x numbers, it's a little discouraging that he didn't hit the zone any more than he usually did, meaning the reduction in free passes may have been fluky. However, Lackey did throw his first pitch for a strike much more often. At 64.3 percent, that first pitch strike rate was the highest he'd posted since 2008, and three points higher than he posted in that terrible 2011. All the projection systems predictably see regression in this are for him this season, but if he can keep pounding the strike zone to start off at bats, he should be able to keep the walks down near those levels
Photo Credit: Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports
As I said above, the reason for Lackey's abysmal 2011 wasn't his control, but rather his command. In other words, he had no problems throwing strikes, he just wasn't locating them well, and hitters were crushing pitches left right in the middle of the zone. While it's easy to look at a wide gap between ERA and FIP and point to luck, that wasn't the case with Lackey's 6.41 to 4.71 gap from ERA to FIP three years ago. It was easy to tell by watching him that batters were just hitting everything hard off him. He completely earned his opponents' .339 batting average on balls in play and 22 percent line drive rate. Last year, he avoided that, getting that BABIP back down to .281 and the line drive rate down to 18 percent. It's not hard to see how that happened either. Compare Lackey's zone chart from 2011 to the one from this past season. There's an awful lot of red in the middle and upper parts in the first chart, while the second one sees the ball kept down and on the edges of the plate. If Lackey wants to stay effective, it is imperative that he stays away from the middle of the zone in 2014.
Lastly, his stuff saw a rise in 2013 that he'll need to keep with him this season. While his velocity stayed mostly constant from 2011 to 2013 (see here), he used it much more effectively last year. For one thing, he used his sinker much more often last season, which was a major reason he saw his ground ball rate rise from 40.5 percent to 47 percent. Aside from that, Lackey avoided his more offspeed stuff, specifically his changeup and curveball, while upping his usage of the sinker, four-seamer and slider. This led to his highest strikeout rate and whiff rate since 2005. The now-35-year-old showed that velocity isn't the only connection to strikeouts. He mixed up his repertoire, and the results were great. As he gets older, he's only going to see the velocity come down, but if he can keep making these kinds of adjustments to keep his strikeouts up, he'll be just fine.
So, can John Lackey repeat his 2013 season? Honestly, the answer is probably no. He had the perfect storm of great pitching and a little bit of luck last year. His walks will likely rise a tiny bit, he'll lose a little bit of stuff, and a few more hits will fall in. With that being said, he can and should still be an entirely useful pitcher. He made big strides last season, and if he can keep it up, he should be an above-average number three pitcher, and a big reason for another possible playoff run. As long as he continues to limit his walks, and sticks with his adjustments with his pitching style, Lackey's success story will continue in 2014, even if it's not quite as good as 2013.
*Numbers and Charts were from Fangraphs and Brooks Baseball