Red Sox Report: Can John Lackey Keep This Pace Up?
John Lackey has been the great, pleasant surprise of the Boston Red Sox starting rotation this season. In a year where Clay Bucholz has become a medical uncertainty and Jon Lester is struggling to find his form after a hot start, Lackey has been the model of consistency. The question now, as we move into the final two-plus months of the season with Tampa Bay and Baltimore hot on Boston’s heels, is whether it’s reasonable for Lackey to keep this up.
We have to emphasize just how well Lackey is pitching, at least compared to his own previous standard. I’m not talking about his standard in Boston where spent 2010-12 going from inconsistent to train wreck to injured, and usually digging himself a public relations hole in the process. I’m talking about his standard with the Los Angeles Angels, when he built a reputation as one of the American League’s better pitchers.
Lackey, in the course of his entire career out west, from 2002-09, never had an ERA below 3.00. In fact, only once, in 2007, was his ERA even in the low 3s. This was done while pitching a disproportionate number of games in pitcher-friendly AL West parks. Only Texas is a hitters’ haven in that division, while Seattle and Oakland are friendly to pitchers.
Now we see Lackey, working in the AL East with its stacked lineups and mostly tight ballparks, sitting here with a 2.95 ERA after seventeen starts. Is it really reasonable to expect that a 34-year-old pitcher continue on what is not just a career-best pace, but it’s a career year by a very substantial margin?
My inclination is to say no, that things will even out. This does not mean I think Lackey is going to start pitching poorly. I do believe the combination of surgery, weight loss, and a healthy dose of motivation is enough to put a pitcher back on the right track. But asking Lackey to keep pitching at the current pace is an awful lot.
That doesn’t mean doom for the Red Sox rotation, or at least it doesn’t have to. If we assume that Lackey slips a bit, it’s also fair to think that 25-year-old Felix Doubront might continue to grow. It’s beyond fair to expect that Lester pick up his game dramatically. Lackey built up a bad reputation here in Boston for three years, and it was almost exclusively his own doing. But he did give us the best four months of his career at just the right time. Now someone else has to be ready to pick up the baton.