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What's Lacking?


If you are here reading about the Boston Red Sox at Over the Monster, I probably don’t have to tell you that John Lackey has been terrible this season. His 7.36 ERA is worst among all qualified starters this season. His FIP and xFIP aren’t quite THAT bad, but 5.08 and 5.03 are still terrible numbers. Many people will be quick to point to the tremendous adversity he has faced in his personal life,  butI wanted to see if there was anything we can find in his pitching to explain his continued struggles.

ESPN Boston recently sited his increased use of the slider as a possible reason for his struggles, noting that his swinging strike percentage on that pitch has dropped considerably in his time with the Red Sox, while his usage has increased dramatically. This is an interesting theory especially considering that his overall swinging strikeout rate has been deteriorating sharply over the past two seasons. During his two best seasons 2005 and 2006, he posted a swing strike rate of 10.6% and 9.7% respectively, close to Jon Lester range. In 2011 he has generated only 6.4% swing strikes, closer to pitchers like Livan Hernandez and Kyle Lohse. All the while he has been going to his slider more and more, using the pitch nearly 20% of the time this season, miles away from the 7.9% he was using the pitch back in his prime. Mystery solved, right? 

Well, no, not at all actually.

While his slider might not be generating the swings and misses it once did, it has been easily the best pitch in his arsenal. In fact, Lackey and the Red Sox may be aware of that and the increased use may be the result of his struggles and not the cause. In 2011, Lackey’s slider has been worth 4.9 runs above average thus far. In 2010 it was worth 5.1 runs above average. In his time with Boston, the slider has been the only pitch he throws to consistently post a positive value by linear weights. If we want to understand why he is struggling, we have to look at the fastball, because John Lackey’s fastball, which he throws 54.1% of the time has been terrible.

For every 100 fastballs Lackey throws he is 1.66 runs worse than the average pitcher this year. That goes a long way in explaining why he owns a FIP 1.25 runs below the league average. This is a huge decline for Lackey who once owned a very good heater, peaking with an audacious 19.1 runs above average in 2006. Typically the first thing we would expect to see when a fastball becomes ineffective is a loss of velocity. Lackey is currently averaging 90.8 mph on his fastball, which is down from his peak years of 91.4 mph. However, this is not a drastic loss of speed and he averaged almost exactly the same speed in 2007 and 2008. The slight loss of velocity is not very satisfying as an explanation in this case.

While pitch/FX data can be difficult to draw conclusions from, in this case it does suggest that Lackey is not locating his fastball the way he once did. The data is made even more difficult to follow since it began classifying the majority of Lackey’s fastballs as cut-fastballs recently. None the less, there does seem to be a trend. Prior to his days with the Sox, Lackey typically threw his fastball away from hitters, right-handed and left handed. With the movement on the pitch this would mean that the pitch tailed away to lefties and broke back to the plate against righties. Lackey would also occasionally jam the pitch in against righties. Vertically, the pitch would be thrown high and low almost evenly.

Since coming to Boston, Lackey has been less and less able to paint the corners, especially against righties. His fastball has been closer to the center of the plate and more consistently high in the zone. The results support this- as a Red Sox his GB% has eroded from his average of 46.3% to 37.6% this year and he has struggled against righties far more than he did in the past, with a 5.81 FIP this season against righties against his career 3.81 average.

Given the evidence, the increased use of the slider seems to be Lackey’s reaction to a loss of confidence in his heater. He hasn’t been able to put his fastball at the corner the way he once did and he is seeing the pitch get hit and hit hard. If there is any hope that Lackey recovers the change will have to come in the form of an increasingly effective fastball. As Sox fans, we can only hope he finds his way back to the edge of the plate and can once again rely on the fastball as he once did. Without that improvement, it is going to be a long three years.