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In Defense of John Lackey

It's been almost four months since the hideous ending to the season and, hopefully, that has put a small portion of emotional distance between us and the 2011 Red Sox, enough to be able to start to see some of the players and their actions in a less jaundiced light; enough to begin a civil discussion about one of the more polarizing figures on the team. As you probably gathered from the title, this is a little post about John Lackey.

In preparation for this week's podcast with Chad Finn of the Boston Globe (you can check Episode 37 out here; the parts where Marc and Mr. Finn talk are highly recommended), I listened back to the previous time we were lucky enough to have Mr. Finn on the podcast. That would be Episode 22, which was posted at OTM on September 23, 2011. As you might guess from the date, the dominant topic at the time was the on-going disintegration of the Red Sox.

About eight minutes into the discussion, Marc said (and I'm paraphrasing), "John Lackey had an elbow condition. He was terrible before a cortisone shot on his elbow and was solid afterwards. But the further we get from that shot the worse he is. He probably needs a procedure on that elbow." Then Mr. Finn said (again, paraphrasing), "I think he's pitching through something. I think there is something to Peter Gammons' report that he might need Tommy John surgery. It fits his personality, he's a tough guy. It's one of the reasons why he's still a respected guy in the clubhouse. He's a gamer. I think we'll find out something after the season about him pitching through something he shouldn't have been pitching through."

As it turned out, they were both right.

Lackey did need Tommy John ligament replacement surgery, which he had following the season, and which will keep him out for the duration of the 2012 season. Before I get to my main point though, look at this. Here is how the Red Sox distributed starts to their pitchers during that brutal 7-20 September:


Jon Lester ... 6
John Lackey ... 5
Josh Beckett ... 4
Tim Wakefield ... 4
Kyle Weiland ... 3
Erik Bedard ... 3
Andrew Miller ... 2

Lackey was, as we know, horrible during those five starts, lasting less than five innings on average and handing out runs like fliers on a New York street corner. But look again at that list. Other than Jon Lester (who wasn't a whole lot better than Lackey), Lackey is the guy who took the ball the most.

Above, I quoted Mr. Finn calling Lackey a tough guy and a gamer. I don't think John Lackey's reputation in Boston (non-Red Sox clubhouse edition) is that of a tough guy. But is there any tougher thing to do in baseball than that? At the end of a season when his team was falling apart, a historic collapse precipitated by injuries to and under-performance from the pitching staff, in the worst season of his career, and by this point so clearly pitching through an injury that would require major surgery that he could be correctly diagnosed on a podcast, John Lackey took the ball more than any Red Sox starter other than Lester.

You may not like the guy. You may wish he hadn't signed with the Red Sox. The deal certainly hasn't turned out like any of the parties involved wanted it to, so that is certainly a reasonable position to take. But shouldn't John Lackey get credit for toughing it out? John Lackey took one for the team. He gutted and gritted out a season which, outside of his salary, was probably pretty close to as bad a season on all possible fronts as one could go through. Yet he didn't hide and he didn't use injuries as an excuse even though he was suffering from and pitching through one of the worse injuries a pitcher can sustain.

All of that is true, yet nobody calls John Lackey a gamer, says he's gritty, or gutty, or made of Ecksteinium. Instead people say they're glad he got hurt so he won't be on the team this year. The Red Sox starters last season got a lot of flack for supposedly not caring. Say what you want about the man, but John Lackey cared. He cared so much he kept pitching even though his elbow was shredded because his team didn't have any other options and needed him to. Shouldn't John Lackey get credit for that?