Red Sox Player Preview: John Lackey
Next up in our player previews was the Red Sox biggest offseason signing prior to the 2010 season. Similar to Carl Crawford this year, it came as a surprise to everyone when John Lackey decided to leave the Angles and move across the country to sign a 5 year, $82 million deal. This deal now pays him $15.25 million a season through 2014, very similar to fellow starting pitcher Josh Beckett who will make $15.75 million per season through 2014.
Both Lackey and Beckett shared something else in common last year, and that was a perception from Red Sox fans that their 2010 performance was a disappointment. Lackey came East with a long track record of success, posting sub 4.00 ERAs from 2005-2009. Red Sox’s as well as Lackey himself thought that he could have done better than the 4.40 ERA that he posed in 2010.
The biggest hole in the 2011 Red Sox team appears to be starting pitching with Josh Beckett coming off a poor 2010, Daisuke Matsuzaka being inconsistent at best, and John Lackey falling short of expectations. Was John Lackey’s 2010 season really a disappointment? Will he be worth the massive contract the Red Sox signed him to? Is there any reason to be optimistic looking forward?
We will look at his 2010 statistics, his career highs in parenthesis, and his 2011 outlook.
Games Started: 33 (33, 2010 and 2003-2007)
Innings Pitched: 215 (224, 2007)
Win-Loss Record: 14-11 (14-5, 2005)
ERA: 4.40 (3.01, 2007)
WHIP: 1.42 (1.21, 2007)
Batting Average Against: .274 (.241, 2006)
Strikeouts/9 Innings: 6.53 (8.57, 2005)
Walks/9 Innings: 3.01 (2.09, 2007)
Average Pitches/Game Started: 109 (109, 2010)
Fastball Pitch Value (wFB)*: -7.8 (+19.1, 2006)
Slider Pitch Value (wCB)*: +5.1 (+7.1, 2007)
Cutter Pitch Value (wCT)*: -0.5 (+1.2, 2006)
Curveball Pitch Value (wCT)*: -7.4 (+15.6, 2008)
Changeup Pitch Value (wCH)*: +1.2 (+2.0, 2003)
*Pitch values are a sabermetric statistic from Fan Graphs and measures which pitch is a pitchers best pitch. A 0.0 pitch value is average, a positive value is above average and a negative value is below average. As a point of reference, the best fastball pitch score was Tim Hudson with a +32.1 and the worst was James Shields with -24.7.
I think without debate John Lackey’s 2010 fell short of expectations. His 4.40 ERA was higher than any since 2004, and his 1.42 whip was as high as any in his career. Not giving up free passes, which usually is one of Lackey’s strengths, was also a problem as he walked more than 3 batters per 9 innings. But it wasn’t a completely lost year either, and there are things to suggest that 2010 could have been an adjustment year and there is still hope for positive return from the megadeal the Red Sox gambled on.
Another sabermetric statistic found on Fan Graphs is Wins Above Replacement, or WAR. This stat attempts to take the overall impact that a player has, and compare it to the added value that the player brings over a replacement player. A replacement level player is generally considered the common next player in line, be it a bench player or minor league player.
In 2010 John Lackey’s VORP was 4.0, above his career average of 3.9. That 4.0 WAR tied him with other star pitchers such as Matt Cain of San Francisco and Matt Latos of San Diego. It also tied him for the 27th best in all of baseball.
That does not sound like the type of year that would lead people to think it was a disappointment. What people fail to see is that Lackey was an innings eater in 2010, totaling 215, his most since 2007 and also throwing an average of 109 pitchers per start, the highest of his career. That type of pitcher is extremely valuable to a team – especially one with injured starters like the 2010 Red Sox – as it helps protect the bullpen and also gives stability to the rotation.
However, while this was a good season, it was not as elite as past seasons, such as 2005-2007 when he averaged a 5.8 WAR, the third best in all of baseball during that period trailing only Johan Santana and Brandon Webb. I bet either pitcher would have killed for John Lackey’s 2010 season since neither was able to pitch at all.
Obviously it was not all good for Lackey in 2010, and a large part of that was due to his relative lack of both command and control as his velocity was right in line with his career numbers. Control is a pitchers ability to throw strikes, while command is the ability to hit specific spots within the strike zone. Lackey struggled with both in 2010. His lack of command of his fastball led to his lowest fastball pitch value since 2003, and his inability to control his curveball led to his worst curveball pitch value of his career. In fact, 2010 represented only the second time in his career that he had a negative curveball pitch value. If he is better with either of those pitches he should see his whip and ERA drop, as well as his strikeout rate rise back to his career average of 7.12 per 9 innings.
Lackey also was not the luckiest pitcher in baseball in 2010. He had a batting average against on balls in play (babip) of .319, far above both his career average of .306 and MLB average of right around .300. A regression to the mean should lead to better luck for Lackey in 2011, lowering both his batting average against and in turn his runs allowed.
A final sign of hope for 2011 was Lackey’s second half performance. His first half performance was miserable while he adjusted to going through the never ending string of elite lineups found in the AL East. He struck out only 5.4 batters per 9 innings in the first half, with only a strikeout/walk ratio of 1.5. In the second half we saw a huge bump in these numbers to 7.8 k/9 and a k/bb ratio of 3.4, both of which were better than his career averages.
Overall, if you stand back and look at the numbers, Lackey had a much better 2010 than the public gives him credit for, mostly due to elite expectations to go along with the contract. However, there is even room for growth from a solid 2010. If Lackey can throw his fastball and especially curve with more accuracy and if his luck returns to normal we should see improvement across the board – including a rise in his strikeout rate, reduction in walk rate – both of which should lead to a decrease in his ERA.
If that can happen and he can again be an innings eater, you have an extremely valuable pitcher. Lackey will be lined up as the Red Sox number 3 starter – behind ace John Lester and breakout star Clay Buchholz – and his production could make him one of the best number 3 starters on any team in baseball.
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