Let me start out by saying, I know it’s been quite some time since I’ve had a chance to write here. This past semester of school had me as busy as I’ve ever been in my life, and I just didn’t have the time to write nearly as much as I would have liked. Now, though, school is over, graduation is passed, and I’m left here with more time than I could have ever imagined. I’ll be around these parts writing on a much more consistent basis this summer. I’ll officially begin my comeback to this site writing about everyone’s favorite player from the past few years: John Lackey.
Of course, I jest when I discuss the popularity of John Lackey. He is quite possibly the least popular player on the current roster amongst fans. The reason for this, obviously, has been the combination of putrid pitching, injuries that have kept him off the field for extended periods of time, all on top of a relatively large contract that he has totally failed to live up to. In his first two seasons in Boston, the right-hander put up a 5.26 ERA, good (bad?) for an 82 ERA+ (ERA adjusted for league-average and park effects). His 2011 season was especially bad, when he put up a 67 ERA+ and was arguably the worst pitcher in the entire sport. After missing all of last season with Tommy John, that horrendous 2011 was our last memory of Lackey in a Red Sox uniform. It’s because of all this that the expectations for him coming into the 2013 season were extremely low, and a league-average performance would have been more than welcome.
Even before the season started, there were reasons where Lackey could exceed his low expectations and still be a solid back-of-the-rotation arm. For one thing, many people thought he had been pitching through injury at least in the 2011 season, and by all accounts was finally healthy again this year. In addition to that, there were some well-publicized personal issues going on in his life, and it’d be impossible to say those didn’t affect his performance at least a little bit. Now, in 2013, with the injuries and personal issues behind him, it was easy to imagine his performance at least heading back in the right direction, even if he’ll never be worth his contract.
Sure enough, Lackey was been everything a reasonable fan could have expected of him thus far this year, despite the rough outing he had yesterday. On the year, Lackey boasts a 4.05 ERA, which is slightly above average for a 107 ERA+. The encouraging thing is that even though those stats would be perfectly acceptable for a fifth starter with the expectations he had in the offseason, it appears he still has room to improve this year. For one thing, his batting average on balls in play (BABIP) is sitting at .341 right now, well above the league average. Much of that came from yesterday’s strange game, though, as his BABIP was just slightly over .300 before that game. Lackey has also only been able to strand 66-percent of his base runners, which we hope is something that will regress, but could very well be indicative of a larger problem.
Looking at his Brooks Baseball Page, one difference I’ve noticed with Lackey from his horrid 2011 campaign is that he’s using his sinker a lot more this season. Two years ago, he threw the pitch just four-percent of the time, while that usage has increased all the way up to 18-percent this season. The result has been a groundball-rate that has gone up five points from his 40-percent mark in 2011. With the increase in grounders, Lackey has also seen a decrease in fly balls. This should mean a few less home runs this year, though he’s suffered through a rising home run to fly ball ratio (HR/FB) that has not let that come to fruition yet.
The most worrisome part of Lackey’s 2013 thus far has been his struggle in stranding players on the base paths. With bases empty and him pitching from the windup, hitters have put up just a .221/.254/.309 slash-line against Boston’s number-five starter. However, when there’s a man on base and he’s forced to switch over to the stretch, that slash-line jumps up to .372/.429/.581. That’s an extremely worrisome problem, and one I’m sure the coaching staff is working with him to improve. That being said, this has never been this big of a problem in his career. Lackey has allowed a .717 OPS with the bases empty in his career, and that’s upped itself to .767 with men on. That’s not a totally insignificant increase, but it’s also not the disaster we’ve seen this year.
The fact is that while Lackey has been far from dominant in his first five starts of the 2013 season, he has at least met a lot of people’s expectations, and has probably exceeded many more. With some more luck on balls in play, and an improved approach with men on base, he could get even better. Through a month and a half, though, he has been slightly above-average, and that’s perfectly acceptable for an unpopular, overpaid fifth starter who’s coming off Tommy John surgery and one of the worst pitching seasons in recent Red Sox history.